Unplanned tourism, marine pollution and illegal man-made structures are posing a serious threat to the biodiversity of Bangladesh's lone coral island, Saint Martin's, a Department of Environment (DoE) report says.
Locally known as ‘Narikel Jinjira’, the island is located on the southernmost tip of Bangladesh, separated from the mainland by a 9km wide channel.
Sandy beaches, corals and clear blue water attract thousands of tourists, both local and foreign.
The DoE says an estimated 7,000 people live on the 13sqkm island, which can at best support about 4,000. During peak tourist season, 5,000 to 6,000 people visit it daily on average and about a thousand stay overnight.
Illegal construction boom
Bangladesh declared the island an Environmentally Critical Area in 1999, making DoE's clearance mandatory in the construction of concrete buildings and the opening of hotels and resorts.
The Ecologically Critical Area Management Rules-2016 also prohibits discharging waste in the water or activities that can damage or alter the natural characteristics of an ECA.
Recently, the DoE found many hotels and resorts operating without having obtained clearance or having failed to renew them, said DoE Chittagong region Assistant Director (technical) Md Bodrul Huda.
Between 2010 and 2011, 10 hotels, resorts and restaurants were fined Tk17,150,000.
Blue Marine was fined Tk10 lakh, Prince Heaven Tk6 lakh, Sayed Alam Tk32 lakh, Sea Inn Hotel Tk36 lakh, Keari Restaurant and Resort Tk20 lakh, Labiba Resort Tk63 lakh, Panna Resort Tk3 lakh, Nil Diganta Resort Tk50,000 and Jafar Alam Prince Tk1 lakh.
More than 100 buildings were built without DoE's clearance in the last decade, according to the report placed at the 36th meeting of the Standing Committee on Ministry of Forest and Environment on August 10.
Most of these were constructed soon after the government decided to set up a marine park on the island.
The High Court in 2011 asked concerned authorities to carry out a number of tasks including identifying and demolishing buildings constructed without DoE clearance. On March 21 this year, the court issued a contempt ruling against 11 government officials for ignoring its directive.
No eviction drive has been conducted in St Martin's since 2011. Local Union Parishad Chairman Nur Ahmed and his men thwarted the last attempt in 2013.
DoE Chittagong Region Director Md Masud Karim said they had served show-cause notices on 100 buildings but several businesses moved the High Court and secured a stay order.
Experts ring alarm
St Martin's is home to some rare flora and fauna.
Chittagong Veterinary and Animal Sciences University's Prof Dr M Nurul Absar Khan said man-made causes threatened the island's environment.
“The coral island is a stock of extraterrestrial, marine and land resources. It is also a suitable habitat for different species of multi-coloured ornamental fish but humans are adversely affecting the biodiversity,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
Coral reefs, the world's most diverse marine ecosystems, are made up of thin layers of calcium carbonate secreted over thousands of years by billions of tiny soft bodied animals called coral polyps.
Most corals depend on algae for food. The algae produce food for themselves and the polyp through photosynthesis. Turbidity caused by boat propellers can prevent the algae from getting sunlight and cause the corals to eventually die.
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Bangladeshi tourists can be seen in the background of a piece of coral at the shore of Saint Martin Island November 29, 2004 Rafiqur Rahman via Reuters
Marine biologist Prof Dr Md Maruf Hossain said: “Corals are very important in the food chain since they account for 30% food supply for fish. The reefs provide shelter for brooding fish during spawning season. Moreover, corals are called bio-indicators of changes in water quality.”
The Chittagong University professor conducted research on the status of the island's biodiversity between 2006 and 2009.
He said the island had at least 67 species of corals and noted that it was a “good example of co-occurrence of corals, algae, sea weeds, grasses and mangroves.”
He found 234 species of fish, seven species of crab, 187 species of mollusk, and 14 species of algae. Of the corals, 19 were fossil corals, 36 living corals and the rest were from six families of subclass Octocorallia.
There was an estimated 1,500 tons of red sea weed biomass available around the island while an estimated 1,650 metric tonnes of fish were caught every year.
Maruf noted that over-exploitation of renewable marine and coastal resources and removal of coastal vegetation were major threats to the island's ecosystem.
Tough time for sea turtles
The number of endangered Green Turtle and Olive Ridley Turtle that visit the island every winter to lay eggs has decreased significantly in recent years.
“Human activities hamper the breeding of sea turtles,” Prof Khan said.
According to DoE, campfires on beaches or use of flashlights disrupt breeding of sea turtles. Besides, pariah dogs that roam the beaches in search of turtle eggs also contribute to the turtles' decreasing number.
Moreover, sea turtles are often killed when they get caught in fishing nets.
According to the DoE, over 200 flashlights were seized and some shops were evicted from the beaches as the sea turtles did not lay eggs in February 2013.
Lack of waste management
More tourists are good for business but bad news for environment.
As their number goes up, so does the amount of waste. St Martin's does not have a waste management mechanism in place to tackle the problem.
As a result, raw sewage and other wastes are discharged in the open. This has a damaging impact on the island's ecology.
The island's once picturesque sandy beaches are littered with debris. Prof Maruf said regular beach cleaning programmes can help reduce the trash.
St Martin's needs concrete guideline
The DoE report proposed formulating a guideline for conserving biodiversity and suggested determining the number of hotels that should be allowed to operate there.
It said the guideline should fix the number of tourists and cover rehabilitating the coral and shell collectors.
The report noted that it was possible to earn a substantial amount of revenue through planned tourism, without disturbing the ecological balance.
India’s Lakshadweep, Andaman, Maldives and Macau are perfect examples of being governed under a special guideline, it added.
The DoE has undertaken a Tk15.85 crore project to recreate Keya forest, regenerate and conserve coral, and create alternative jobs for coral collectors, among others, to conserve and improve the island's biodiversity.
Maruf said: “The government should carry out a thorough scientific study to determine the island's current state of environmental degradation.
“Bangladesh should take cues from Thailand and Indonesia and go for eco-tourism to conserve St Martin's biodiversity.”