Alifa Bintha Haque aims to change the way we look at marine conservation and the fishing industry, one sawfish rostrum at a time
National Geographic EDGE Fellow Alifa Bintha Haque doesn’t believe her life growing up in Bangladesh was particularly colorful.
“I was born and brought up in a city, and I lived in a total urban setting,” she says. Then, encouraged to choose a career in medicine or engineering, the terms “marine conservation” and “sawfish” were complete mysteries to her. But a life devoted to the rescue of an endangered species and revolutionizing the fishing industry began when the only subject she ended up with when picking a university was “zoology.”
“After that first year, I found out there was so much we haven’t been taught and so much to do,” she says. After earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Dhaka and graduating from Oxford with a master’s, she moved back to Bangladesh to study marine fisheries, exploring the coast and learning about sharks and rays.
“I used to go to the field in the southeastern region every month for 7-10 days,” she explains. “I used to stay there and document what was being caught, who was catching it, who was buying, the trade, the people, stakeholders, the species, all together.”
In 2016, Haque was introduced to the sawfish – or rather, it’s rostrum, the saw-like snout flanked by rows of teeth, which was almost as tall as her.
“Previous studies showed that sawfishes were not really common in Bangladesh anymore,” she says. “We had an idea that it was so rare you wouldn’t see one in five, 10, or even 20 years. So I was really surprised to see the rostrum.” An interview with the trader who found it later, she concluded that the number of sawfish may be better than she had thought.
“We found out that while most tropical countries had declared it extinct, Bangladesh has a population that’s globally important, [it’s] one of the hotspots for a certain species of sawfish,” she says. However, data collection was easier said than done, as the fish was an expensive commodity, hence rarely ever reached official landing sites.
Haque circumvented the problem by designing a cell phone network to establish a system of trust with the traders and fisherpeople.
“We have a central [phone] number,” she explains. “Whenever a sawfish is caught or landed, if the trader saw or bought it, they would just take a photo and send simple data – like how long was it there for, how big was it, was it male or female, who bought it, and maybe some DNA samples.”
Over the next 9-12 months she concluded the sawfish was even less rare than she’d thought, having found over 40 instances of huge sawfish, most of which were caught as bycatch in normal fishing expeditions, rather than being fish specifically sought out.
“We need to try to identify their critical habitats within the Sunderbans and Bangladesh,” Haque says. “Only legal regimes never help conservation, though; it has to be accepted and pioneered by the local people, the primary stakeholders, who know about it, who deal with it.” One of Haque’s central goals is to encourage fisherpeople and traders to release sawfish caught as bycatch while they are still alive, and thus preserve the population.
As mentioned, sawfish still are expensive, the high price coming courtesy of a local belief that its meat can cure cancer (a belief Haque says is false). And that raises even more barriers.
“Sawfish can be as heavy as 1,000-2,000 kilograms [2,205-4,409 lbs], and they sell for 20-40 bucks per kilogram [$8.7-$17.4 per pound]. For a poor fisher, or a boat owner, or the people around them, it’s a huge fortune, even if they catch one in five years.” As a result, those who catch these fish are reluctant to set them free and lose income.
A running theme through this story is how our protagonist finds a systemic solution for any problems the sawfish face.
“Last year, we started these workshops around the coastal areas of Bangladesh that allow fishers to identify barriers through this program,” she says. “They could be as small as ‘I have to cut my net, who will pay for it’ and as big as ‘what if I lose my job.’”
Haque aims to encourage people everywhere to educate themselves about marine conservation and make smarter choices. Using online resources, simply checking the seafood you eat, how it was obtained, and what impact it has could help people become what the cool kids call “eco-friendly.”
It’s not just the sawfish, but several marine species that need saving and protection, a point Haque emphasizes. “I think shellfish, sharks and rays in general, is probably our flagship,” she states, “and it’s extremely important from an evolutionary perspective to save it. Because if it gets lost, there is no species close to it to take its jobs in the ecosystem.”
As she delves deeper into her research, Haque is understanding that marine conservation and sustainable fishing are vital, yet challenging, issues to address, especially in countries where millions rely on marine fisheries for a livelihood.
“I know, it’s very easy to relate to one very charismatic species,” she says. Apparently, you cannot not fall in love with a handsome sawfish rostrum. “But beyond that, I think it’s also important to talk a little bit about this very complex socio-ecological stuff, and how people can contribute no matter where they are.”
Check out Alifa Bintha Haque’s National Geographic bio
For more of SEEMA’s Earth Day pioneer showcase, check out Melati Wijsen Drives Youth to Be the Change They Want to See