A sub-regional grouping that needs to get back on track

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BIMSTEC needs a framework to address the specific challenges facing the Bay of Bengal region

BIMSTEC needs a framework to address the specific challenges facing the Bay of Bengal region

As global attention remains focused on the war in Ukraine, leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) will attend a summit meeting of the regional organization. The meeting, which will be held in virtual mode, will be hosted by Sri Lanka, the current president of BIMSTEC.

Founded in 1997, the seven-member BIMSTEC, which includes the coastal states of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Thailand is also a member) and the landlocked states of Nepal and Bhutan, has identified 14 pillars requiring particular attention. These are trade and investment, transport and communications, energy, tourism, technology, fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation , the fight against terrorism and transnational crime, the environment and disaster management, people-to-people contacts, cultural cooperation and climate change. While each sector is important, the segmented approach resulted in omnibus summit releases full of aspiration rather than action. The upcoming summit is an opportunity for BIMSTEC leaders to go beyond general statements and take concrete action to address the critical challenges facing the region.

A Bay of Bengal Maritime Dialogue (BOBMD) recently organized by the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Pathfinder Foundation brought together government officials, maritime experts and representatives of prominent think tanks from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. Participants called for increased efforts in areas such as environmental protection; Scientific Research; reducing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, as well as developing standard operating procedures that could govern the interaction between a nation’s fishing vessels and maritime law enforcement agencies of another.

Rich marine ecosystem

Presentations made at BOBMD highlighted that the Bay of Bengal is home to a vast network of beautiful but fragile estuaries, mangrove forests of approximately 15,792 square kilometers, coral reefs of approximately 8,471 square kilometers, seagrass and mass sea turtle nesting sites. The annual loss of mangrove areas is estimated at 0.4% to 1.7% and coral reefs at 0.7%. Sea level is projected to rise by 0.5 meters over the next 50 years. Additionally, there have been 13 cyclonic storms in the past five years. The bay is an important source of natural resources for a coastal population of approximately 185 million people. The fishing population alone is estimated at around 3.7 million, with an annual fish catch of around six million tonnes, constituting 7% of the global catch and valued at around US$4 billion. About 4,15,000 fishing boats operate in the bay and an estimated 33% of fish stocks are fished unsustainably (Source: February 2022 presentation by E. Vivekanandan, Senior Consultant, ICAR-Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute) . According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Bay of Bengal is one of the hotspots for IUU fishing in Asia-Pacific.

Pressing challenges facing the Bay of Bengal include the emergence of an oxygen-free dead zone where no fish survive; leaching of plastic from rivers as well as the Indian Ocean; destruction of natural flood defenses such as mangroves; sea ​​erosion; increasing population pressure and industrial growth in coastal areas and, consequently, huge amounts of untreated waste. Security threats such as terrorism, piracy and tensions between countries caused by arrests of fishermen crossing sea borders are additional problems. It should also be borne in mind that the problem of fishermen crossing the territorial waters of neighboring countries concerns India and Sri Lanka as well as Bangladesh and Myanmar (also Pakistan on the west coast).

Need for regional interaction

The blue economy potential of the Bay of Bengal is enormous. There are many opportunities to develop maritime trade, shipping, aquaculture and tourism. However, harnessing these opportunities requires coordinated and concerted action by governments, scientists and other experts. The BIMSTEC Summit should create a new regional mechanism for coordinated activities on maritime issues of a cross-border nature. This mechanism must initiate urgent measures to strengthen fisheries management, promote sustainable fishing methods, establish protected areas and develop frameworks to prevent and manage pollution, in particular industrial and agricultural waste and oil spills. It is also necessary to deepen scientific research on the impact of climate change in general and on fisheries in particular.

At present, cooperation between countries in the region in the field of marine research is limited. Most BIMSTEC countries have leading institutions and excellent scientists, but their interaction with the West is far greater than within the region. The use of modern technology and improved fishing practices can go a long way in restoring the health of the bay.

This should be a priority area

The protection of the marine environment must become a priority area for cooperation in the Bay of Bengal. Enforcement needs to be strengthened and information shared on best practices. Regional protocols need to be developed and pollution control guidelines and standards established. Decision-making must be based on science and on reliable data, information and tools.

There is a need for local solutions based on the capacities of local institutions and mutual learning through regional successes. There is a need to create regional frameworks for data collection. Participatory approaches should be developed for near real-time stock assessment and the creation of an open regional fisheries data alliance. The Bay of Bengal Program (BOBP), an intergovernmental organization based in Chennai, is doing good work in promoting sustainable fishing.

A Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) project is also being initiated by FAO with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and others. The BIMSTEC summit must express its full support for both BOBP and BOBLME. The summit must mandate officials to propose measures to reduce unsustainable fishing as well as IUU fishing. These could include setting up an international vessel tracking system and requiring vessels to be equipped with Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking devices; establish a regional fishing vessel registration system and publish vessel license lists to help identify illegal vessels; increase monitoring, control and surveillance in IUU fishing hotspots; establish regional guidelines on how to deter and prevent IUU practices; improve the implementation of joint regional patrols, regional fishing moratoriums and outreach programs targeting fishers. The laws and policies of the coastal States must be harmonized and the humanitarian treatment of fishers must be ensured in any encounter with maritime law enforcement.

The challenges facing the Bay of Bengal region no longer tolerate any delay. BIMSTEC must get up, wake up and act before it’s too late. The summit is to set up regular meetings of officials, backed by scientists and experts, to tackle illegal and unsustainable fishing as well as prevent further environmental degradation of the Bay of Bengal.

Venu Rajamony is Professor of Diplomatic Practice, OP Jindal Global University, Senior Advisor, Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and former Ambassador of India to the Netherlands

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