[Note: This is the fourth blog in a series about the WCS-led marine megafauna survey, which is gathering data on whales, sea turtles, sharks, and other marine species inhabiting the coastal waters of Bangladesh. Data from the effort will identify biologically important locations for future consideration as marine protected areas.]
In 2011, I was in the middle of completing my post graduate degree in Nha Trang, Vietnam. I attended class every day to study fisheries management, hoping and wishing that sometime in the future, I would be out in the field using my expertise to help to make sustainability a reality.
Seven years later, I am now back in my home country to help lead an effort to establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) for conserving the rich marine biodiversity of Bangladesh, a country that supports fisheries sustaining livelihoods for 50 million people living along the country’s 750-kilometer coast.
The first phase of this effort is to conduct a comprehensive survey of marine megafauna, including dolphins, porpoises, whales, sharks, rays and marine turtles, and investigate fisheries that entangle and kill these threatened species. Covering the entire coast of Bangladesh, the overall goal of this survey is to use this information to identify potential sites for new protected areas. So far the survey has been the most exciting and possibly the most intense experience of my life.
When I first laid eyes on the two survey boats, I had mixed feelings: a gripping fear of sea sickness, and the excitement of being able to actually see the marine megafauna I had studied about in school. The first thing that struck me was the amazingly job our team did to modify the boats to safely and comfortably accommodate our entire survey team.
They built a covered space for sleeping and storing equipment along with a kitchen and basic bathroom facilities. They also equipped both vessels with a VHF radio to communicate with each other.
Alas my fears came true and I was sick on the first day. All I could think about was how I was embarrassing myself by not being able to stand my watches which entailed looking through a pair of binoculars searching for dolphins, porpoise, whales and fishing vessels.
The rocking and rolling of the boat kept me from doing anything much on the first day. Still, we had a sighting of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, the first time I had seen these amazing animals at sea, and I felt much better watching their joyous leaps.
My seasickness improved on the second day and I took up my onboard duties standing watches and collecting environmental data. I was elated to be gaining the field experience that I had always dreamt about and knew was critical for achieving marine conservation in my country.
While the larger survey vessel follows a pre-designed transect line and focuses on searching for marine megafauna and fishing vessels, the team on the smaller fishing boat investigated the catches, bycatches and fishing practices of vessels spotted by the larger vessel. Working on the small boat, I saw beautiful sharks and rays being pulled out of the sea entangled in gillnets and caught on long-lines with thousands of hooks.
I also saw huge amounts of plastic being pulled up in these same gears. The presence of plastic reminded us that our precious marine environment is being polluted and our fisheries are being over exploited, putting vital resources including threatened marine megafauna at risk.
These observations made me even more determined to protect the rich marine resources of my country. Meanwhile, the simplicity of the lifestyle of fishermen on their floating homes facing the roughness of the sea made me respect their livelihoods even more.
After eight days at sea I had to return to our office in Dhaka to fulfill the less exciting duties of my new job as WCS Bangladesh MPA Program Manager. My time on the water seemed like a lifetime of learning collapsed into this short time when our survey team became a family, supporting each other and working together to accomplish our shared goal of protecting marine biodiversity in Bangladesh.
I have always wanted to make a tangible contribution to marine conservation and this survey is how it all begins. WCS has given me this opportunity for which I am deeply grateful, blessed and moved.
Manzura Khan is the WCS Bangladesh Marine Protected Area Program Manager and a research participant in the survey.