Swan Song of the Bay

The Bay of Bengal that was the treasure trove of a multitude of marine animals and a rich source of living for hundreds of fishermen has now developed many ills and so does not appeal the fishing folk any more.  Interestingly enough, the Bay of Bengal’s basin encompasses some of the most populous regions of our lonely planet, while a quarter of the world’s population is concentrated within the eight countries that border the Bay. Around 200 million people, to be precise, live along the Bay of Bengal’s coast line and of these a major portion were partially or wholly depended on its fisheries.

However, to know more about what caused the world’s largest bay (by area) that was first called ‘Golfo de Bengala’ to dwindle so badly, you may have to go through the following paragraphs.

Good intention played a bad part – During the sixties, several overseas agencies (especially Japanese) encouraged the growth of trawling in India, so that fishermen could earn more from the demand for magnum size sea prawns (Tiger Prawn) in overseas market. This motivation amounted to a Pink Gold Rush, in which prawns were trawled with fine mesh Japanese nets that were slowly dragged along the ocean floor. But along with the primary catch, these nets also scooped up most of the sea-floor ecosystems consisting of vulnerable species such as sea turtles, dolphins, etc that were termed ‘Bycatch’, echoing ‘Byproduct’ and were mostly discarded. As a result, the hauls eventually became so meager as to abandon the project.

Interactions created bad blood – During the eighties and nineties, fisheries expanded into new horizons and began to target new species and for a while there was an increase in catches. But catch rates began to dwindle in the late 1990s and trawlers were forced to move farther and farther from their home waters. This in turn created a little-noticed grid of conflict. In 2015 Sri Lankan authorities claimed to have spotted 40,544 Indian trawlers in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. Seventy trawlers were seized and 450 fishermen arrested. At least 100 deaths have also been reported. At the same time, many Sri Lankan tuna fishermen have been arrested in India too. On the other side of the subcontinent, large numbers of Indian fishermen are frequently arrested in Pakistan: 220 of them were released in December 2016. But all these incidents created bad blood, as a result of which, deep sea fishing in the Bay of Bengal suffered a lot.

Illusory boom created more mess – The foreign aid that flowed in immediately after the deadly tsunami of 2004 had quite a few inadvertent consequences. For example, it led to unprecedented expansion and modernization of the small scale fisheries sector that gave rise to an illusory boom that busted as soon as it was born.

Dead Zone – Some time ago a multinational team of scientists reported an alarming finding – a very large “dead zone” has appeared in the Bay of Bengal. Apart from sulphur-oxidising bacteria and marine worms, few creatures can live in these oxygen-depleted waters15. This zone already spans some 60,000 sq km and appears to be growing.

The dead zone of the Bay have now reached a point where  further reduction in its oxygen content could have the effect of stripping the water of nitrogen, a key nutrient. This transition could be triggered either by accretions of pollution or by changes in the monsoons, a predicted effect of global warming.

Damage to ecosystem - Incidentally, the Bay’s ecosystems are also being disrupted by sundry other environmental conditions. Several large rivers empty into the bay, carrying vast tides of untreated sewage, plastic, industrial waste and effluent from the agriculture and aquaculture industries. The impact of this pollution is indeed catastrophic. The high load of organic pollutants, coupled with the diminution of the fish that keep them in control has lead to massive plankton blooms, further reducing the water’s oxygen content.