Nature Quest: The corals of St Martin's in peril

Healthy coral colonies in the Saint Martin's Island. Photo: Mohammad Arju/Save Our Sea

Around 67 percent corals of the Saint Martin's Island have been bleached to death and the rest are likely to be damaged if pollution and non-regulated navigation continues, reveals a survey finding.

"Save Our Sea" (SOS), a research and advocacy platform run by Organisation for Social Orientation, conducted several studies and surveys from November 2013 to March this year to build an ecological profile and prepare conservation management plan for the island.

Some of the key findings of the studies were presented in the "2nd Marine Conservation and Blue Economy Symposium" earlier last month at the capital's Brac Centre Inn. The event was organised by SOS in cooperation with Mangroves for the Future and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh.

According to recent data released by SOS, the number of sea turtles visiting the island to lay their eggs has drastically declined.

The island had only 17 successful nesting of sea turtles in 2015-16 nesting season. It is one of the major nesting sites in Bangladesh for sea turtles and the locals say that before tourism started the numbers were in thousands every season.

Corals occupy less than one percent of the world's ocean bed, but provide habitats to more than one quarter of the marine wildlife globally. There are at least 68 species of corals around Saint Martin's Island, making its marine area a unique biodiversity hot spot in Bangladesh.

Reacting to the findings of the surveys, experts and different government authorities on the island blamed man-made causes for the poor ecological condition of the island.

Garbage on dead corals. A recent survey says around 67 percent corals of the island have been bleached to death due to pollution and non-regulated navigation. Photo: Mohammad Arju/Save Our Sea

Officials at the Department of Environment (DoE) said they did not conduct any survey like the ones done by SOS, but their observations do match with SOS's findings.

They identified at least three man-made reasons behind the decline of the biodiversity of the island -- water vessel-based pollution, destructive fishing, and poverty of the local community.

Experts blamed the government as well as its different agencies, including the DoE, for the declining environmental condition of the island. They said the government declared the island as Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) in 1999, but did not take any major initiative under the declaration.

They also suggested bringing the island under Marine Protected Area (MPA) immediately to save coral reefs that serve the ecosystem, tourism, fisheries and protect the shoreline as well as serve food to around 30 percent aquatic creatures.

Both the DoE and the SOS blamed unplanned tourism and pollution caused by vessels for the current situation. At least five to seven ships travel with 5,000 tourists every day, except for the monsoon season, to and from the island, according to the two organisations.

"Every coral has algae on its upper part and it serves food and energy to the coral. When propellers of ships lift sediments or mud from seabed and cover the upper part of coral at least half to one inch, algae fail to get sunlight and die, which eventually causes the death of the coral," said Alifa Bintha Haque, director of research of SOS and also a teacher of zoology department at Dhaka University.

Founder of SOS Mohammad Arju said the government acknowledged the island as an ECA, but was yet to take any efforts to recover or restore its habitats and biodiversity.

The marine conservationist said the SOS got associated with the IUCN in 2014 and submitted a report to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation's Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project.

"The formal report is yet to be published, but based on our studies, we suggest policy changes to facilitate a Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) around the island," he said.

 DoE Assistant Director Sardar Shariful Islam, who is posted at Cox's Bazar, said he has no specific data that would corroborate the SOS's claim of 67 percent corals being bleached. He, however, opined that the condition of corals is worse than any time before.

The last "Dive Against Debris" survey in March by the SOS also found that 90.31 percent of marine debris on the island are plastic materials littered by tourists and locals.

Experts and DoE officials blamed the local administration for not keeping any fund to clean such wastes. They suggested restrictions on the movement of ships and tourists in the adjoining areas of the island.

"The stressors which are causing the loss of rich biodiversity of the island are mainly local. Subsurface leaching of sewerage tanks of the hotels, unplanned and excess collection of algae, collection of living and dead corals, hard rocks and shells and dumping of solid and semi-solid waste materials are the main challenges to be addressed," said Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, professor of Environmental Science discipline at Khulna University.

Experts also said destructive fishing in the adjoining areas is putting the lives of turtles, sharks and dolphins in danger.

They suggested the government make it mandatory for the restaurant and hotel owners to recruit 20 percent of the local people at their hotels, which will help reduce poverty of the locals and prevent them from selling corals.

Kamal Uddin Ahmed, secretary to the environment ministry, spoke of a new project, which among other things, would arrange funds for cleaning waste on the island.


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