Five ways to boost stocks of the Bay of Bengal’s beloved hilsa fish
A pioneering scheme that could boost stocks of a fish that feeds millions of people in Bangladesh, India and Myanmar may be a model for other fisheries, but would be more effective if it changed in five ways, says a study published today by the International Institute for Environment and Development.
The research focuses on the hilsa fish and a scheme the government of Bangladesh has implemented to compensate fishing communities that act to conserve the threatened species.
The scheme is a rare example of 'payments for ecosystem services' (PES) from a fishery. Most PES schemes focus on paying people who protect forests because of the benefits this brings to downstream water users.
What makes it doubly rare is that the government developed and funds the scheme without donor assistance.
"Most governments use regulations to manage their fisheries, but Bangladesh has combined this stick with the carrot of compensation," says the report’s co-author Professor Abdul Wahab from the Bangladesh Agricultural University. "To date, few developing nations have drawn from their own budgets to try this approach of providing people with incentives to encourage conservation, and especially not for fisheries."
Once abundant in the Bay of Bengal and hundreds of rivers in Bangladesh, India and Myanmar that feed it, the hilsa fish declined steeply in numbers since the 1970s, largely because of overfishing.
In Bangladesh, hilsa stocks increased after the government made it illegal for anyone to catch them in five important spawning grounds during the fish’s breeding season. To compensate fishing households for lost incomes, the government provided 30 kilograms of rice per month and promoted alternative livelihoods.
The researchers say the if the scheme proves to be a success, this would suggest that direct payments to encourage sustainable fisheries can work elsewhere. They recommend five ways to improve the scheme.
- Better understanding of the complex socio-economic and ecological systems that underpin the hilsa fishery.
- Identify the beneficiaries of the scheme, such as fish exporters, and identify ways these ‘buyers’ of the ecosystem service can help make the scheme financially sustainable. One way to do this would be to channel a portion of export taxes into a conservation trust fund.
- Identify how fisher communities would prefer to receive their compensation packages and redesign them accordingly.
- Empowering local fishing communities to monitor and enforce compliance.
- Improve regional co-operation between the three countries which make up the Bay of Bengal: Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.
"Sustainable fisheries management is about much more than the numbers of fish in the sea,"says co-author Dr Essam Yassin Mohammed of the International Institute for Environment and Development.
"It is about ensuring the financial sustainability of efforts to conserve wild species and about encouraging a sense of local control over both the natural resources and the systems in place to manage them. Bangladesh’s pioneering model of payments to compensate fishing communities has much to teach other nations that face declines in their fish stocks due to overfishing and environmental change."