A big leap in marine conservation occurred last week when Government of Bangladesh announced the declaration of the Nijhum Dwip Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the northern Bay of Bengal to safeguard critical spawning grounds for the country’s most valuable fish species – the Hilsa shad, known locally as the “King of Fish.” In addition, the MPA will safeguard among the world’s largest populations of endangered dolphins, porpoises, sharks, rays, and marine turtles.

Linking wildlife conservation to productive fisheries, the Nijhum Dwip MPA covers 3,188 square kilometers (1,222 square miles) of extremely productive water at the mouth of the world’s third largest river system: the Ganges/Brahmaputra/Meghna, and offshore of Nijhum Dwip, an island that is a National Park managed by the Bangladesh Forest Department.

Declaration of this MPA brings Bangladesh one step closer to meeting its national and international obligation under the Convention on Biodiversity Target 11 and United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 to conserve 10 percent of its marine waters through an ecologically representative and well-connected system of protected areas.

At-sea surveys conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in 2016-18 found that waters around Nijhum Dwip are a biodiversity ‘hotspot’ supporting an astonishing variety of iconic marine wildlife including dolphins, porpoises, sharks, rays, and marine turtles. This survey work and other efforts to assist the creation of the MPA were generously supported by the Rainforest Trust and donors to the WCS Marine Protected Area Fund (MPA Fund), made possible by a partnership with the Waitt Foundation.

The new MPA will protect at least 15 species of globally threatened or near threatened marine wildlife species, and as many as 30 additional species suspected to occur in these waters. Marine wildlife supported by the MPA include globally threatened Irrawaddy and humpback dolphins, finless porpoises, olive ridley turtles, scalloped hammerhead sharks and at least six species of rays including the endangered giant freshwater whipray. Intertidal mudflats shared by the MPA and Nijhum Dwip National Park are priority migratory feeding habitat for threatened shorebirds including the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.

A priority role of the new Nijhum Dwip MPA is to protect the migration routes and highest priority spawning grounds of the Hilsa shad (Tenualosa ilisha), the “King of Fish,” an anadromous species migrating between the big rivers of South Asia and the Bay of Bengal. The fish is considered a delicacy due to its soft and oily texture and the Hilsa fishery in Bangladesh employs about 2.5 million people and generates more than 1.3 billion US dollars for the national economy.

Said Mr. Abu Sayed Md. Rashedul Haque, Director General, Bangladesh Department of Fisheries: “The Nijhum Dwip Marine Reserve or MPA was declared after rigorous scientific review and extensive consultations with government agencies, local communities and experts from IUCN, WorldFish and WCS on how to optimize marine conservation benefits, support sustainable fishing livelihoods and ensure a productive future for the diversity of our marine fisheries. The Hilsa fishery is vital to our national economy as well as the rich culinary heritage of our country.” 

Said Dr. Wahab Md Abdul, Team Leader for the USAID supported and WorldFish led EcoFish Project: “Declaration of the Nijhum Dwip MPA is a huge opportunity for marine conservation in Bangladesh. This is due to its location that covers habitat vital to the spawning and migration of the economically valuable Hilsa shad and for protecting threatened marine biodiversity, including charismatic wildlife such as Irrawaddy dolphins and hammerhead sharks. It was only due to the strong support of the Secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock, Mr. Md. Raisul Alam Mondal that we were able to make this happen”

The Nijhum Dwip MPA is envisioned as a multiple-use MPA with distinct management zones ranging from strict reserves to community-based management areas. A participatory planning process, involving local community members, government agencies, and NGOs, will produce a marine spatial plan that optimizes biodiversity protection with healthy fisheries. The inclusive management strategy planned for the Nijhum MPA will help secure a bright future for iconic marine wildlife and delicious Hilsa on the plates of South Asian people who celebrate it as the King of Fish.

Jason Patlis, Executive Director for WCS Marine Conservation, said: “The science-based approach for siting and establishing this MPA, complete with an inclusive management strategy, serves as a perfect model for protecting valuable marine resources and the habitats necessary for those resources.  We are delighted that the WCS MPA Fund has played a catalytic role in advancing this process.”  

In 2016, WCS launched the MPA Fund to spur the creation of new MPAs around the world and assist countries in meeting their UN ocean commitments to protect 10 percent of their waters by 2020. The MPA Fund commits $15 million to secure legal declaration of new MPAs covering 1 million square kilometers of previously unsecured ocean habitat by 2020. To date, the MPA Fund is supporting MPA initiatives in 23 countries, and thus far have helped to create 440,000 square kilometers of new MPAs. Visit: mpafund.wcs.org.