Faruk, a fisherman from Japoria village of Hatia Island under Noakhali district, travels about 300 kilometres to catch fish in the Bay of Bengal. He enjoys the call of the blue water. He forgets about all the adversities of the journey when he sees close to thirty species of fish with varied colours while fishing in the deep sea. This arduous job pays off quite well, as his yearly sales fetch him Tk 2.0 million (20 lakh). But the irony of the fate is: he still lives from hand to mouth. He has to part with almost the whole amount of proceeds from the sales to repay the installments of his loan from the local money lender, who lends at a high interest rate. Now he has lost all his enthusiasm about going out in the sea to catch fish. He is not alone. Every fisherman in the area has no other alternative but to borrow from these sections of money-lenders at high interest rates.
There are huge resources in the Bay of Bengal. About twenty maunds of fish of different species are caught monthly from the Bay of Bengal, reveals Faruk. But the fishermen are finding it difficult to harness the resources as the local money lenders are exploiting them. If the government stands by them with necessary support and takes punitive action against the middlemen, that will aid extraction of the oceanic resources to a great extent, the 50-year old fisherman says.
He is also deprived of fair prices for his catches. The local buyers in collaboration with the middlemen purchase the fishes from the fishermen at lower prices. In this situation many fishermen have already switched their profession, he says. The government should uphold the rights of the fishermen in the coastal belt and that will help our economy march forward, tapping the oceanic resources.
It is widely known that a longstanding maritime dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar came to an end with a judgment of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in 2012. The judgment was termed as a blessing for Bangladesh, no doubt. With this historic judgment Bangladesh established its sovereign rights to the entire 200 nautical miles of the exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal and a substantial share of the "outer continental shelf" beyond the 200 nautical miles. Without resolving the issue bilaterally, the government of Bangladesh took a bold decision on December 13, 2009 to initiate arbitration pursuant to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to secure the full and satisfactory delimitation of Bangladesh's maritime boundaries with Myanmar in the territorial sea. Bangladesh claimed 107,000 square kilometers while it got 111,000 square kilometres in the Bay of Bengal." under the judgment. The credit goes to the government in power at that time.
Afterwards, the move for resolving the longstanding India-Bangladesh maritime boundary dispute began in full swing. An international court based in the Hague awarded Bangladesh 19,467 square kilometres out of 25,602 square kilometres in the Bay of Bengal in 2018. Newspaper reports suggest that Dhaka lodged the case against New Delhi with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on October 8, 2009 after India unfairly cut off a significant portion of Bangladesh's maritime area in the Bay. With this victory over the maritime boundary, Bangladesh would be able to carry out exploration of several offshore blocks for oil and gas and the blocks show enormous potential. Bangladesh's economy, in the days to come, is set to overcome many challenges through proper utilisation of resources in the Bay of Bengal. By using the sea resources, Bangladesh can go forward very fast economically. What it needs is a good drive in a planned way.
It is estimated that the resources from the sea constitute 81 per cent of the resources existing in its land territory. Experts say fishes account for 500 species in the Bay. Add to them, snails, shell-fish, crabs, sharks, octopuses and other animals. Bangladesh is estimated to catch only 0.70 million tonnes of fish every year out of the total 8.0 million tonnes available in the Bay of Bengal. Experts are of the view that Bangladesh would be able to extract resources worth about Tk 12,000 crore (1.2 billion dollars). It is reported that the country has 75 outer-islands which could be utilised for tourists, both local and foreign. It is worthwhile to mention that 15 per cent of the protein is provided from sea resources for the people across the world. Natural gas and oil constitute 30 per cent of the sea resources and over 50 per cent of magnesium is extracted globally from the seas. Even life-saving medicines can also be obtained from these resources. It is significant to note that Bangladesh's trade is carried out mainly through the sea and it is possible for Bangladesh to do USD 45 billion trade. It is estimated that 5.0 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) could be acquired by 2030 from the resources of the sea. Bangladesh could be a developed country by 2041 if the resources are properly harnessed and adequately used. It is reported that Indonesia's national economy depends largely on its sea resources and Australia is reported to have earned USD 44 billion from its sea. The economy of the world is estimated to stand at USD 88 trillion, of which USD 24 trillion is acquired from sea resources.
Many countries like China, Japan and the Philippines have long been extracting sea-bed resources. Ultimately, 15 per cent protein for 4.30 billion (430 crore) people globally come from marine fish, plants and animals. Nevertheless, around 30 per cent of the world's gas and fuel are supplied from seaside gas and oil fields. There are 36 species of shrimp and 475 species of different other fishes in the Bay of Bengal. But we are yet to explore the full potential of them. In 1969, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in its study on the Bay of Bengal identified that there were 475 species of fish. According to Save Our Sea, about 500 different species of animals live in the sea. It is learnt that approximately eight million tonnes of fish are caught from the Bay of Bengal, of which only 0.70 million tonnes are collected from the fishermen in Bangladesh. Sea fishes account for 15.42 per cent of the country's total fish production and Bangladesh has the ability to fish only 80 lakh tonnes annually. It is possible to earn as much as $ 250 million every year by extracting oil and gas and fishing.
In 2017, an administrative cell titled "Blue Economy Cell (BEC)" was formed to promote blue economy to address the economic challenges. The cell is rarely noticed to run its extensive operation. A World Bank Group study titled "Towards a blue economy: A pathway for sustainable growth in Bangladesh" said that Bangladesh had not yet adopted a comprehensive policy on the ocean economy. After settlement of maritime disputes with neighbours, Petrobangla, the state-owned oil, gas exploration and production company, inked a deal with the Norway-US joint venture TGS-NOPEC and Schlumberger to conduct a two-dimensional non-exclusive multi-client seismic survey in the Bay. Due to Covid-19, the deal did not see the light of the day. The joint-venture company is to conduct a survey in 26 blocks in the deep and shallow sea areas of the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar and India have already ended the move for discovery of oil and gas blocks in the Bay successfully.
According to Bangladesh Bank's annual report, Bangladesh has a 710km long coastline with an exclusive economic zone of 200 Nautical Miles inside the Bay of Bengal. Marine fisheries contribute 19.40 per cent of the total fish production of the country. Bangladesh's external freight trade is seaborne and it accounts for 90 per cent (2018) of the total freight trade. Globally, coastal tourism represents 5.0 per cent of the world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and contributes 6.0-7.0 per cent of total employment. In 150 countries, it is one of five export earners. Among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the SDG-14 focuses on sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. In addition, the Seventh-Five Year Plan (7FYP) mentioned a dozen actions for harnessing a prosperous and sustainable blue economy. The actions included fisheries, renewable energy, human resources, transshipment, tourism and climate change among others.
Bangladesh is set to face many challenges after graduation from the least developed country (LDC) club. To overcome the challenges, utilisation and extraction of marine resources are badly needed. The ready-made garment (RMG) sector risks its tariff facilities in the European market following the LDC graduation. Bangladesh now should think about expansion of dry fish export market globally. Among many countries in the world, Bangladesh is placed in the first row in terms of exporting dry fish. There is high demand for dry fish in the UK, the USA, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Dry fish worth Tk 3.0 billion (300 crore) is exported from Chattogram each year. The decision of importing dry fish from India, Pakistan and Myanmar should be shelved. If the government extends its helping hand towards the people fishing in the bay, Bangladesh can raise its earnings from fish export many times. Alongside extraction of sea resources, the islands in the Bay need to be tourist-friendly. The islands have to be turned into attractions for tourists. More research centres dealing with oceanic resources have to be set up. The government needs to scale up the activity for exploring the precious marine resources.
The fishermen fishing in the Bay must be brought under institutional credit facilities. The state has to extend timely facilities to them. The country's financial institutions also can devise a way to support them. The fishermen, who take loans at high interest rates, must be brought under the banking channel. The Bangladesh Bank can come up with a set of guidelines for them in this connection. Any failure to extract sea-bed resources shortly is not acceptable after the extension of the maritime boundary thanks to the two landmark judgments.
Dr. Md Nazmus Sadekin is chairman and associate professor of Economics Department of Mawlana Bhashani Science and Technology University.
Md. Mazadul Hoque is a banker and economic analyst.