Bangladesh: Choppy waters in the Bay of Bengal

DHAKA, 21 October 2009 (IRIN) - Fishermen and experts agree: climate change is taking its toll in the world's largest bay, with more sudden changes in atmospheric pressure and storms.

"Global climate change is responsible for the increasing number of tropical storms in the Bay of Bengal," A.Q.M. Mahbub, head of Dhaka University's Disaster Research Training and Management Centre, told IRIN.

"Global warming is raising the temperature of the tropical ocean regions, resulting in more atmospheric disturbances," he said, estimating that by 2030 the bay's temperature may rise by 1.3 centigrade.

From 1991 to 2000, 20 depressions originated in the bay, including 12 cyclones, the Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD) reported.

However, between 2001 and 2009, there were 39 depressions, six of which intensified into cyclones.

Mohammad Rasheduzzaman, a meteorologist with the BMD, said 2009 had already proven a particularly turbulent year: Of nine depressions to date, two - 'Bijla' and 'Aila' - had become fully-fledged cyclones, he said.

Impact on livelihoods

For those whose livelihoods depend on their ability to fish these waters, the impact is direct.

If a trawler owner has to abandon a fishing trip due to bad weather, the fishermen return empty-handed as they get a share of the catch in lieu of wages. If a fisherman is lost at sea, his family faces dire consequences: Employers do not provide financial safety nets.

As weather conditions become more changeable, many are increasingly prevented from fishing in the bay.

"Over the past year, the sea has grown more and more turbulent. Atmospheric pressure changes are frequent. In August, we only had five days for fishing, and in September only six," said Mujibur Rahman, convener of the Cox's Bazaar fishing boat owners committee, confirmed.

Along the country's southeastern coast in Cox's Bazaar District, the livelihoods of more than 100,000 fishermen are under threat, local sources say.

"In the last nine months, I had only about 30 days of fishing. Once the warning signals are up, it's not safe to go back to sea for almost a week. Never before have I known the sea to be so merciless," Abdul Jalil, a veteran fisherman of 35 years in the coastal town of Cox's Bazaar, explained.

Trawlers are prepared for week-long fishing trips, with related costs often exceeding US$1,400 a trip. If a trawler has to return home suddenly due to bad weather that investment is lost.

Most owners say they are losing money, and many have sold their trawlers, with many fishermen leaving the profession altogether, becoming day labourers and rickshaw-pullers instead.

Meanwhile, those who venture out in bad weather do so at their own peril.

"It's not only the money; deep-sea fishing is fast becoming a very hazardous profession. In the last month alone we lost seven fishermen in 12 shipwrecks," Rahman said.

"The number of fishing trawlers and fishermen lost to the sea is increasing every day. If this continues, very soon fishing may come to a complete standstill in the Bay of Bengal," he warned.