That day on Cox's Bazar sea beach, the pouring rain and the swaying ocean formed an unbreakable bond – one would struggle to see where the rain and the ocean parted ways. I couldn't see much through the heavy rain, but sure felt the strong presence of a raging bay as the drip-drop continued.
I was anxiously waiting for this alliance of rain and ocean to end. Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute – BFRI's scientific officer Khairul Alam Shobuj was waiting for me. We were scheduled to visit the Marine Fisheries and Technology Station – MFTS' (official name of BFRI Cox's Bazar station) cage culture of seabasses, mullets, and oysters in the estuary of Bakkhali River in Khurushkul.
The young officer was kind enough to sacrifice his day off to show me what they (the MFTS) have been nurturing in the Bakkhali estuary.
Around lunchtime, the rain stopped. We took a reserved speedboat from Ghat No. 6 to the estuary.
To be honest, when I first saw the queues of bamboo structures floating on big plastic drums in the river, I assumed the fish were inside the plastic drums. I was itching to see the mullets and seabasses.
After two MFTS guards reached us, to my awkward surprise, they began to drag the fishing net from the water circled by the plastic drums that supported the structure. The fishes were in the net underwater, not inside the plastic drums.
As we dragged them up, I finally got to see the touchy mullets and seabasses. They were too agile to remain on the surface of the water for long.
I barely had time to take a good photo before we had to release them back into the water. The net was too heavy even for all of us holding it together.
"This project has been going for 4/5 years by now. If cage culturing of seabasses and mullets is successful, the over-dependence on ocean fish stocks will be reduced. We will have plenty of them without depleting natural stocks," scientific officer Shobuj said.
However, the Bakkhali project has yet to make a significant breakthrough. From maintenance to sustenance, the investment that is required by such an experiment exasperates the BFRI project officials, according to its scientific officers.
"It is tough to bring a change here with government funding alone. If the private investors come up with assistance, these projects will have no reason to fail. It needs to be done more thoroughly, which requires adequate funding and supervision," Shobuj added.
They also have a mollusk raft culture on the Bakkhali estuary. Shobuj dragged out a cage of green mussels and an oyster cage for us to see.
I'm not sure if I did these beautiful seashells justice with the photos you see here, but just looking at them will give one goosebumps.
The green mussels are highly nutritious. Besides its anti-inflammatory nutrients, the mussels are a good source of calcium, zinc and an excellent source of iron, selenium, and several B-vitamins. The oyster, green mussel and other seashells are called bivalves together.
Although green mussels are not in high demand in Bangladesh, they can be exported if cultured successfully (bivalves are New Zealand's main aquaculture), and they can be produced almost at zero maintenance cost. You don't even have to feed them.
However, all of these potentials are still capped in the research phase, just as the entire concept of the blue economy in Bangladesh is almost in the incubation phase.
It was June when I visited the BFRI's Cox's Bazar projects. The natural season of seaweed ended two months ago. Despite this, Shobuj took us to the natural bed of seaweed near Cox's Bazar airport which has been threatened due to the expansion of the airport.
When the global market value of seaweed could exceed $85 billion by 2026; and around 80% of the seaweed produced globally are from Asia, Bangladesh annually produces just a meagre 600 tonnes at present- an example of another gem of blue economy that remains untapped in Bangladesh.
However, when I visited the main MFTS office premise in Cox's Bazar sea beach area the following day, I found that they have been researching to provide seaweed all over the years.
Its station chief, Dr. Shafiqur Rahman, told us that in recent years, besides the development of seaweed culture technology in marine environment, they also developed a low-cost emergency dryer to minimise spoilage of fish in absence of the sun.
Dr. Rahman said they were working on several projects involving seaweed, live feed (first food for baby sea creatures), spawning season identification of marine fishes, oyster, and mariculture (seabass, mullet, and mollusc), and the marine crabs. "New jurisdiction established over a vast area in the Bay of Bengal offers great opportunities for Bangladesh through proper use and development of its blue economic resources on a scientific basis," Dr. Rahman added.
As we entered the BFRI lab, a long corridor welcomed us. Remember, you must wash your feet outside and must not bring the shoes inside because they can be harmful to the sea creatures living there for the institute's experimental purposes. Rows of concrete tubs, a few of which were empty, could be found to the left of that corridor.
The tubs are linked to a saline water with UV filtration unit because it is the basic living component for sea creatures. Then according to the needs of the creature, the water is mixed with live feed or other nutrients.
I met a lonely marine crab in one of these concrete tubs—a lone mother sea crab with eggs inside, who could appear menacingly ferocious if you got too close to her.
I wondered if the crab was upset that they had taken her from a vast sea to this tiny little tub, or if her manners were influenced by loneliness.
However, senior scientific officer Ahmad Fazley Rabby enlightened me. He told me that it was a brood crab's natural mother instinct to protect her eggs that caused this crab to become overprotective.
The BFRI officers said that they have been breeding blue swimming crabs for the second season to see if they could culture them locally.
There were two separate lab rooms on the right side of the corridor, one for live feed and one for seaweed culture. These two require a certain amount of light exposure and proper temperature.
What fascinated me most was the live feed. Millions of billions of zooplanktons and phytoplanktons were being cultured in small glass jars and beakers.
The lab in charge Zakia Hasan said, "These planktons are basically first food for the spat (baby oyster) and Zoea (baby crab)."
"These live feed are packed with nutrients that give the baby creatures enough nutrition to grow in a laboratory. Even the hatchery owners and technicians collect live feed from this lab for free," she added.
A rectangular hall with four concrete reservoirs is located at the end of the corridor. One of them contains a mud crab. The other two have seaweed baskets.
There are some glass aquariums for sea bass fish, a giant blue swimming crab, and oysters as well. Fazley Rabby said that right now they were trying to feed the blue swimming crab with tilapia fish as the crab is carnivorous.
The oyster pool was amusing. They appeared to me to be uneven rocks placed in a pool of water with a constant supply of oxygen. No movements, nothing.
It's hard to even tell if they are alive or dead. They have been growing inside that pool since they arrived from the ocean, and these oysters are now expected to be pregnant. But it is hard to know if they are giving enough effort to that end.
This is a common expectation from every creature brought to the lab. All they have to do is to produce babies.
But even if they do, most of the babies do not survive long.
"That is the challenge we are trying to overcome in this laboratory. If these creatures can survive and produce in the lab, it means these can be cultured and turned into a profitable industry," said Fazley Rabby.
Regardless of how many of the BFRI projects were successful or not, its Cox's Bazar station will give you a sense of how the blue economy works in real life.
Something new and blue always keeps happening at this institute.