Community Engagement: Improving Maritime Domain Awareness in the Bay of Bengal

working with communities to stop illegal fishing
Local fishers, like the ones above at Royapuram Fishing Harbour in India, can provide valuable insight to maritime enforcement agencies in the Bay of Bengal. Photo: Rajesh Pamnani.

Maritime enforcement agencies face significant challenges in their struggle to obtain comprehensive maritime domain awareness (MDA) within the Bay of Bengal. Undetected illlict activities like smuggling, human trafficking, piracy, and armed robbery threaten regional stability. Littoral states have implemented several successful countermeasures to improve maritime vigilance, including information sharing centers (ISCs), automatic identification systems (AIS), vessel monitoring systems (VMS), and coastal radar systems. While overall these improve the ability of countries to identify threats, the systems have limitations that illicit actors can exploit. As explained in the Stable Seas: Bay of Bengal maritime security report, smaller vessels like artisanal fishing craft have proven especially elusive and frequently avoid detection in crowded harbors and remote mangrove forests. Building relationships with coastal communities provides maritime enforcement agencies with a cost-effective and low-maintenance solution to improving MDA. Sourcing information from local fishers enhances the enforcement capacity of maritime agencies, increases trust between local communities and the government, and improves awareness of the challenges faced by these communities. Eliciting the support of communities also complements technological tracking systems by providing a less predictable, and therefore less avoidable, method of gathering intelligence.

Existing Maritime Domain Awareness Initiatives 

Although several initiatives, like ISCs and maritime patrols, have improved MDA in the Bay of Bengal, gaps for illicit actors to exploit still exist. The success of information-sharing centers like RECAAP, IFC-IOR, and IFC, which focus on improving MDA to combat piracy and armed robbery, have shown the importance of maritime vigilance for regional stability. The geographic complexity of the Bay of Bengal coastline makes rigorous MDA all the more important as inlets, islands, and mangroves provide safe havens and drop-off points for smaller vessels. India’s Information Fusion Center—Indian Ocean Rim (ISC-IOR) forms an important means of compiling and sharing intelligence across boundaries in the region. Sharing information, however, requires further streamlining as interagency competition within nations and maritime disputes between nations disrupt cooperation and dissuade active participation in collaborative MDA initiatives like IFC-IORA.  

Technological approaches like AIS, VMS, and coastal radar systems remain vulnerable to tampering and rack up substantial implementation and maintenance costs. Vessels trying to avoid detection can disable their AIS or VMS devices, report incorrect locations, or use false identification when registering. Likewise, small-business owners and fishermen cite high costs, which hover around roughly $200 to $400 a vessel, as an impediment to equipping their vessels with AIS and VMS devices. By sidestepping the automated systems and relying on the vast coastlines to evade patrols, illicit actors frequently avoid detection. The flexibility and less obtrusive presence of a maritime militia can work in concert with existing MDA initiatives to provide more comprehensive coverage. 

Engaging Coastal Communities   

Coastal communities provide a cost-effective force multiplier to maritime enforcement agencies and diversify the intelligence-gathering methods available to the government. The Bantay Dagat program initiated by the Philippines in 1994 forms a strong precedent. The program includes volunteers in their patrols of coastal waters to deter IUU fishing and protect threatened marine species. In 2017, the Philippines further developed the initiative by offering cash incentives to participants ranging from around $50 to $100. A joint task group of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the Iloilo Provincial Bantay Dagat Task Force apprehended 17 fishing vessels during their patrols in 2018 from August 28 to September 1. Knowledge of local maritime navigation routes and fishing grounds provided by fishermen helped direct these operations. The less noticeable nature of community volunteers makes it difficult for illicit actors to detect and predict their presence. In congested port anchorages like Chittagong and Kolkata illicit actors on smaller vessels carefully analyze patrol routines before attempting armed robberies. Between 2016 and 2018, this method led to 22 recorded incidents of robbery on vessels near Chittagong. Engaging coastal communities adds an element of unpredictability that could allow the government to intercept and discourage trespassing.  

Community involvement programs build on existing regional initiatives, which facilitates seamless implementation and improves trust between civilian and government sectors. The Indian Coast Guard uses community interaction programs to encourage fishermen to share information. By formalizing the information-sharing process, expanding the program’s scope, and instituting a reward program, India can rapidly expand its maritime capacity, which is currently limited by finite assets and resources. A close relationship with maritime enforcement agencies also benefits coastal communities by increasing awareness of region-specific challenges faced by fishing communities among law enforcement personnel. Agencies can then engage in dialogue or adjust policies to accommodate local concerns. The trust developed through sustained, mutually beneficial interactions increases the efficiency of security operations and can dissuade community members from turning to illicit activity before physical enforcement becomes necessary. 

Conclusion 

A comprehensive MDA allows the government to locate, intercept, and apprehend kidnappers, smugglers, traffickers, and IUU fishermen. Likewise, using data collected through MDA to analyze incidence patterns can inform the direction of future maritime security measures. Although Bay of Bengal littoral countries have striven to increase MDA, room for improvement exists. Community engagement complements ongoing MDA initiatives, like AIS, coastal patrols, and ISC, by addressing security shortcomings that illicit actors exploit. Likewise, the relationship built between law enforcement agencies and coastal communities facilitates dialogue on the challenges faced by local fishermen.