Poachers on the prowl: Bangladesh moves to save sharks and stingrays

A few years ago, fishermen along Bangladesh’s coasts caught sharks and stingrays only when the fish were stuck in nets. With time, their commercial value has grown. Now poachers are competing to catch these sea creatures.

The trend of poaching the fish has risen over the past couple of years due to the high prices of their fins, gill plates and skins in the international market.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change last month listed nine genera and 52 species of shark and stingray as endangered aquatic life by amending the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, a move hailed as a significant step towards saving them.

Mollah Rezaul Karim, conservator of forests at Wildlife and Nature Conservation Circle at the Forest Department, said the update of the list is based on the government’s international, regional and constitutional commitment to conserve marine life in peril and their habitat.

Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society

The government also took advice from national and international experts and technical assistance from the Wildlife Conservation Society or WCS, while the Pew Charitable Trust’s global shark conservation project helped amend the law.

Bangladesh signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals or CMS global agreements in 1981 and 2005.

Experts believe the Forest Department and law-enforcement agencies will play an active role in protecting the imperilled aquatic creatures included in the revised list, while the amended law will benefit the local fishermen by systematically facilitating sustainable acquisition of fish that are not at risk.

They said the risks of different species of aquatic creatures going extinct would lessen if the endangered ones were properly identified and authorities held comprehensive campaigns to raise awareness among fishermen, fish traders and consumers.

Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society

At the same time, strong action is required to stop poaching.

Dr Md Zahangir Alom, country representative of WCS, said sharks and stingrays face the threat of extinction due to high prices of their fins and other organs although they play an “undeniable” role in keeping balance in the marine ecosystem and ensuring a healthy sea.

Now in Bangladesh, catching or trading conserved species of shark and stingray is a punishable offence under the law. The offenders face a maximum of one year in jail or Tk 50,000 fines or both.

AWARENESS IS THE KEY

So far, 116 species of sharks and stingrays have been identified, and most of them are facing threats, according to ASM Jahir Uddin Akon, director of Forest Department’s wildlife crime control unit.

They are hunted not for general consumption, but for their fins and organs to be sold at high prices.

“No one travelled to the sea to hunt sharks and stingrays even 10 years ago. They were seldom netted by some fishermen.

Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society

“But poachers have been hunting these creatures over the past couple of years. We need steps to put a stop to this,” Jahir said, calling for measures to control legal fishing of sharks and stingrays and to end poaching.

Zahangir Alom of WCS said the updated lists will give protection to eight genera and 23 species of shark and stingray. They will also legalise sustainable fishing and trade of one genus and 29 species of shark and stingray.

So, it is important to make the fishermen aware about the identities of the sharks to ensure effective enforcement of the amended law, said Dr Md Sharif Uddin, director of the marine survey management unit at the Department of Fisheries.

“We need skilled manpower, training and huge awareness campaigns in the coastal areas.”

“If we can make the fishermen, traders and consumers realise that conserving the endangered fish will ensure their livelihoods and food security, it will be possible to take Bangladesh towards a sustainable management of shark and stingray fishing.”