Humans have a biophilic soul but an anthropocentric (considering human beings to be the most important element) way of life and livelihood.
This nature is best reflected when we are awed by the ocean and at the same time, can relate to fish only for consumption or generation of revenues.
It is thought-provoking to realise how the growing interest in conserving terrestrial megafauna is fundamentally but perilously different from the interest in preserving sharks and rays.
Any fish from the sea is mainly considered a fisheries resource, inherently related to consumption and livelihoods.
While livelihood is essential, the lack of appreciation of fish as just animals with the right to thrive in their own habitats leads to a social narrative problematic to conserve them.
In a fishing dependent country, we are at a crossroad of encouraging enhanced and efficient fishing to save the fishers and curb the same fisheries to protect the ocean predators - the sharks.
Although it sounds very oxymoronic - exactly here, our research focuses on finding a balance for both the fish and the fishers within a very complex socio-ecological, economic, and political situation.
Sharks and rays have survived millions of years in the oceans and are the ecosystem's indispensable elements that ensure ocean health and human well-being. Each group of sharks and rays has a unique functionality.
Thus, many species are irreplaceable in the ecosystem; as such, losing them will mean losing that ecosystem function altogether and forever leading to irreversible consequences with a potential manifestation of ocean die off. We cannot let that happen.
Therefore, our journey began with counting the sharks and rays to an incredible number of hundreds to a few thousand per day at the formal and informal coast-wide landing sites and collecting data on the life-history, ecology and fisheries.
We sampled more than 1,60,000 fishes in just one fishing season belonging to 90 species and counting. Of these, at least 55 species are threatened with extinction according to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, 2021; many are data deficient, meaning we do not know anything about them.
Several of them were recorded for the first time. It does not mean they are new to Bangladesh; regrettably, what it means is we have not looked enough beyond commercially important species to unveil these charismatic megafauna.
It led to an in-depth understanding of artisanal fisheries' impact on the threatened species accumulating for decades and creating a much-needed baseline, absent for a while, hampering timely conservation actions.
A bliss of geography
Being mega-biodiverse is not unlikely for Bangladesh. Being at the northern arm of the Bay of Bengal and endowed with nutrient-rich freshwater mixing within the coastal bay, Bangladesh offers one of the most diverse and impeccable habitats for more than 110 sharks and rays.
We have some of the most unique sharks in the world - the Whale shark, the ferocious Bull shark and Tiger shark, the enigmatic Ganges shark and rays as big as your room - the Giant freshwater ray and the dancing Devil rays.
We have the prehistoric sawfishes and the globally perishing guitarfishes and wedgefishes roaming around in our own waters.
However, in the last few decades, we have lost at least one sawfish and wedgefish species to unregulated fisheries, our indolence and reactive approach to conserving species.
But, what do we know?
It is heart-breaking that after decades of fisheries research, we still call the Bay of Bengal one of the most data-poor regions, mainly for evidence-based conservation. Hence, there is no more time for any delay.
Our efforts thus encompass species' ecological studies, boat surveys to unveil fishing efforts and mortality, critical habitat identification of critically endangered species and habitat suitability modelling for ecological and spatial management.
Most importantly, we collaborate with coastal fishers to understand their barriers in adhering to best practices at sea, especially for by-catch mitigation strategies and live release of most periled species.
Hopefully, these efforts will lead us to collaborative, inclusive, and practical management actions towards a sustainable future for both the shark and the fishers.
A delicate, ancient synergy
We cannot emphasise enough on the importance of fishers in our ongoing studies.
Fishers can contribute towards science and governance, leading to enhanced acceptance of regulations and a shared understanding of preserving fish in the ocean.
They can portray an almost perfect temporal snapshot of the status of a species, critical when there is no data or literature from before.
We collaborate with these fishers to identify the critical habitats for threatened species in Bangladesh and determine the challenges fishermen face in adhering to any by-catch mitigation strategies.
If we ask fishers to stop trading sharks and rays for money, we need to understand what other things could be valuable to them and what else can be done to incentivise them.
We conducted workshops with the fishermen, and I asked them what they would need as compensation to release a threatened species alive.
I was surprised and inspired when the fishermen said they would love to have scholarships for their children to attend school, access to information about safety at sea, better relationships with boat owners or fisheries officials or just the cost of repairing the nets.
Many of them, in these communities, did not ask for direct monetary compensation and it taught me again that conservation starts with people by understanding their challenges and needs to help them make a better and more informed decision.
We all need to remember, we all adhere to regulations when we comprehend and accept and realise the shared benefit they may bring. It is the same for the fishers.
The time is now
We need a comprehensive framework and a precautionary strategy where conservation efforts are initiated before the species reaches a critical limit to encourage sustainable fishing methods that will help stabilise population decreases.
Advanced research, local participation and ongoing experiments are required for a complete conservation approach for shark and ray fisheries management in Bangladesh, emphasising scientific evidence and local pioneers.
The stakeholders' individual and collective efforts and the political will of all neighbouring nations will determine the destiny of sharks and rays in the Bay of Bengal.
Regional fisheries management organisations can improve coordination in the management of these species.
Reduced fishing demands and habitat degradation in coastal regions should be prioritised, with increased law enforcement and capacity building of local people to ensure sustainable fishing and better livelihood opportunities.
Finally, we must recognise that Bangladesh is home to these globally threatened species, putting the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh on the map of the world seascape as a priority location for vulnerable species research and preservation.
Finally, we need support from people belonging to all spheres.
Everyone has a stake in this and can participate as a volunteer, a voice to society, a responsible citizen, a researcher, a journalist, a traveller, a writer, etc, having a common goal to connect to nature, feed our biophilic soul and preserve our long-ignored marine fauna.
Alifa Haque is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Dhaka