Marine Tenure and Small-Scale Fisheries: Learning from the Bangladesh Experience and Recommendations for the Hilsa Fishery


Through its commitment to addressing extreme poverty, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is focused on integrating a deeper understanding of the importance of small-scale fisheries and the role marine tenure plays in achieving food security, inclusive economic growth, biodiversity conservation, and other priority development objectives. Small-scale fishing communities are among the poorest and most vulnerable groups in developing countries, highly dependent on wild fish stocks for food and livelihood. These communities are largely landless, residing in coastal areas vulnerable to threats, especially those related to climate change. Small-scale fisheries employ more than 90 percent of the world’s capture fisheries workforce and receive few if any subsidies. With fish stocks declining globally due to open access and poor governance of both land and sea, small-scale fishers and their families continue to be marginalized to a life of extreme poverty.

USAID/Bangladesh requested technical assistance to determine if responsible governance of tenure should be considered in future programming and in an existing project, Enhanced Coastal Fisheries (ECOFISHBD). ECOFISHBD supports fishing communities and other key stakeholders reliant on the hilsa shad (Tenualosailisha) fishery to improve the resilience of the Meghna River ecosystem and communities. This desk study provides a summary of the Bangladesh experience in small-scale fisheries and marine tenure and addresses the following questions:

  • Is there a model for tenure/co-management arrangements in the Bangladesh that can be applied to the hilsa shad, a migratory species whose life cycle requires river, estuarine, and marine ecosystems?
  • What are examples of tenure/co-management arrangements that have been applied/worked for this type of fish species?
  • Does Bangladesh have a legal/institutional enabling framework to support these arrangements?
  • Is tenure/co-management an appropriate approach for this species, based on experience in Bangladesh and elsewhere?
  • What types of interventions should ECOFISHBD focus on?
  • What types of approaches should USAID focus on? What are implications to the broader fishery of the management options, if USAID focuses on one particular migratory species?

The coastal and marine fishery of Bangladesh is very diverse and based on over 400 species considered to be “marine” fish. Historically, fish supplied 80 percent of the animal protein consumed in the national diet. Although this has fallen, fish still probably supply 50 – 60 percent of animal protein. However, most domestic fish consumption is of freshwater species. This was originally from inland capture fisheries, but increasingly since the 1980s pond aquaculture has been a major source of fish in domestic markets. The boundaries between marine and inland fisheries are blurred in Bangladesh, and the zones targeted by the ECOFISHBD project straddles a largely estuarine ecosystem, which combines inland and coastal fisheries. This has important implications for tenure and regulation of fishing. The hilsa fishery is largely estuarine, and the majority of fishers, who are considered small-scale, catch fish in coastal and estuarine waters.

A review of the literature for marine tenure in Bangladesh found almost no information. This is in contrast to inland fisheries in the country where there is a considerable experience on fisheries tenure.

There is no mention of security of marine tenure rights in any areas of Bangladesh. There is also no mention of traditional/customary marine tenure institutions for marine fishing. While community-based fisheries management (CBFM) for inland waters is well established in Bangladesh, CBFM for coastal and marine fisheries is almost non-existent, with only a few examples. Although policy statements supporting CBFM and community-based integrated coastal management exist (for example, the coastal zone policy, national water policy, national fisheries policy, inland capture fisheries sub-strategy and marine and coastal sub-strategy under the national fisheries strategy and action plan, and national adaptation plans of action), these have not been developed into formal instruments or implemented. The literature makes no mention of local governance institutions that determine rules about how key tenure issues such as access, use, management, and exclusion of a defined fishing area are developed and implemented and how these are administered by community-based marine tenure institutions. Similarly, there is no mention of application of fishing rights or community rights in marine fishing areas. Some of these tenure concepts have been applied to public bodies of water based on co-management and exclusive use rights through leases. It is possible that community-based marine tenure institutions exist in coastal areas of Bangladesh, but these have not been formally documented.

Bangladesh has many laws that may impact on coastal and marine fisheries in some way, but there are few that directly regulate inland or coastal fisheries. In general,implementation of environmental laws and regulations in Bangladesh is compromised by overlapping responsibilities between different agencies, lack of delegated clear responsibilities, lack of resources, and the ability of those with influence to bypass laws or adapt their application to their own benefit.

Although there have been a number of research and development projects from the late 1980s onwards, but particularly from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, that worked to improve management of inland capture fisheries, none focused exclusively on management of riverine or coastal fisheries. Rather most of these initiatives focused more on fisher livelihoods. Fisheries management in isolated waterbodies are likely to be less relevant to ECOFISHBD than experiences in riverine-estuarine fisheries and in large wetland systems with their wide ranging migratory species composition. This is because isolated waterbodies are less dependent on migratory fishes, use rights are more easily defined, and rights holders are more likely to benefit from adopting sustainable practices since the catch spends most of its life cycle within the waterbody. Experience in large haor wetlands of Northern Bangladesh also provides some useful insights.

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