Tourism vs biodiversity conservation
Rapid expansion of ecological imbalance in St Martin's Island
Rapid expansion of ecological imbalance in St Martin's Island
St Martin's, a small continental island in the Bay of Bengal, is located on the southernmost tip of Bangladesh. Local people call this island 'Narikel Jinjira' because of large production of coconut in the island.
The island is 7.315 km long. It is home to 3,700 people 90 per cent of whom live on fishing. But their main source of earning has been in grave threat, not because of any natural calamity but due to human intervention with nature in form of expanding tourism in a way of exploiting nature.
The St Martin's island is naturally blessed with vast marine and land resources. The island is a good example of co-existence of corals, algae, seaweeds, grasses and mangroves and contains some of the unique species not found anywhere else in the South Asian region.
Being attracted by its panoramic beauty and immaculate marine life, the island has seen a massive increase in tourism (mostly Bangladeshis) over the last few years. According to the government-run Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC), more than 3,000 tourists, rising to 5,000-7,000 during holidays including weekends, arrive everyday and tend to stay overnight in such a small island. But the fragile ecosystem on the island is not well-equipped to handle it.
Thus, unplanned and uncontrolled tourism in the island has turned up as the most threatening aspect for the degradation of biodiversity. As a result, the country's only coral colony as well as the major sea turtles habitat is in verge of extinction, experts opined.
It has been known from a study by Canadian coral biologist Dr T Tomasik in 1997 that the island's rocky sub-tidal habitat supports a diverse coral community represented by approximately 66 Scleractinian coral species, of which 19 are fossil corals, 36 are living corals and the rest are under families of subclass Octocorallia (11 species of soft corals).
A total of 234 species of fish have been recorded from the coastal water of St Martin's Island, of which, 89 are coral associated. The mollusc on the island is the largest and most beautiful in Bangladesh. A total of 186 species of mollusc and oyster, seven species of crab, nine species of echinoderms, four species of sea urchin, one species of sea cucumber and some brittle stars were also identified in the island shore.
Besides, the island has its fame as an important nesting ground for three kinds of marine turtles, including Olive Ridly. All of them are considered as globally endangered by International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
These marine creatures are the life-source for the ecosystem in and around the island but are greatly disturbed by human activities related to tourism. Experts explained how…
Marine biology expert Dr Md Rashed-un-Nabi explained that the major threats to the coral habitats are high levels of sedimentation, cyclones, storm surges, freshwater and agricultural runoff, pollution from human settlements and the removal of coastal vegetation.
"Those threats are steady and have slow impact. But the main threat to the future viability of the coral communities in St Martin's comes from direct extraction of coral colonies, triggered by unregulated tourist intrusion during last few years," he said.
Dr Rashed-un-Nabi is the chairman of the Institute of Marine Science and Fisheries, Chittagong University.
A field study conducted under the aegis of CSE Media Fellowship programme on Coastal Concern to the island has established the expert's claim. The local government official of the island acknowledged that the excessive tourist turnout during last couple of years has been contributing to the increase of solid wastes. The marine park island is trying to cope with the waste problem from the general population of the islands as well as with the increased amount of wastes from lodges and resorts, he added.
At present, solid wastes disposal system remains disorganised and unavailable on most localities in the island. Oil pollution caused by passenger boats and ferries, which brings the tourist in, is also an issue that is contributing to the deterioration of water quality. The advent and rising demand of tourism on these islands had resulted in the increase in the number of boats and ferries. The cumulative effect of the oil residue has started affecting the health of the marine resources, mainly the coral colony, experts said.
It has also been reported that reckless construction of buildings for tourist accommodation such as hotels, motels and restaurants has increased at a very rapid rate as a result of intensive development in certain areas, largely trembling the area's ecological balance.
Dr Rashed-un-Nabi elaborated that the increase in tourism has brought with it increased use of environmentally dangerous products. This huge amount of waste produced by tourists gives rise to huge waste dumps, which are often thrown only a short distance from the tourist centres. This creates health hazards and reduces the aesthetic qualities of the place.
Construction of multi-storey buildings, hotels, motels and jetties for the last few years is also posing a threat for this special type of island and its sensitive biodiversity, he added.
According to the local government office in St Martin's Island, only 5.0 per cent of the local people have sanitary latrine facilities. Thus the quality of coastal water is degrading gradually.
During the CSE media fellowship programme supported field visit to the island, it has also been noticed that corals, algae, different species of shells, star fish are collected by the tourists regularly though such acts are forbidden. A number of vendors were seen trading coral and shells in front of every major hotel and tourist spot. Though they are forbidden by law, enforcement authority appears reluctant.
Similarly, corals extracted from the St Martin's were also found on display in multiple shops in other major tourist destinations like the Cox's Bazar and Patenga.
"Coral is very small part (in coverage) of marine ecosystem for an island but almost every life evolves around it," National Project Director of the Coastal and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project of the Ministry of Environment and Forest Md Jafar Siddique said elaborating its importance.
If the destruction of coral colony continues, soon there will be no coral left to provide hatching ground for these fish species, and is likely to create scarcity of fish for the fishermen of the island, he explained.
According to him, growth of coral colony demands a specific range of temperature, clean surface water, appropriate depth and pollution-free water, he said adding that all these mandatory preconditions for proper growth of coral colony are significantly at risk at present, Mr Siddique said.
He also acknowledged that the illegal trade of corals as a result of uncontrolled tourism in the St Martin's Island is the main threat at present.
"Natural colours of the coral colony in the St Martin's are fast becoming pale as environment around the island is changing unfavourably for its growth," Mahbubur Rahman, Project Manager of the Coastal and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project said.
The expert said unclear water around the colony, as a result of tourism, is disturbing the growth of phytoplankton, which is the main food of the living corals.
A study in 2008 (by DelPHE) identified that the abundance of coral associated fishes reduced drastically by almost 45 per cent compared to Tomasik report conducted in 1997.
Similar to the coral colony, another priceless resource of the island's biodiversity is its sea turtles habitat that has also been experiencing grave threat of extinction in recent years as a result of increasing pressure from tourists.
The Coastal and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project has identified several causes for declining sea turtle populations which include decline and reduction of nesting beaches, high mortality of adults by fishing activity, predation and noise pollution. These are related to tourism-related activities.
According to experts, sea turtles come to nest on the beaches of St Martin's Island between 10.00 pm -02.00 am. Day by day the nesting population has declined due to severe exploitation of eggs and illegal killing of adult female turtles by poachers for meats. Now only a few individuals come to nest in some protected sandy beaches.
Uncontrolled tourist movement disturbs the nesting turtles. It is also noted that generators of the hotels and motels are run till midnight for tourists which is another reason for decreasing the number of nesting turtles in the St. Martin's Island, nature conservation activists claimed.
Besides, illegal trade of turtles meat and turtles eggs have also been a prime cause of this habitat loss, largely triggered by the expansion of tourism in the island. The field study has also identified illegal business of turtle egg-made food items in some restaurants. They were alleged of supplying turtle meat to the tourists on demand as well.
In absence of proper management and conservation activities, users of the island still haphazardly utilise the natural resources. The destruction of habitat and over-exploitation of these resources have resulted in declining the biodiversity as well as degradation of coastal and island ecosystems. There is lack of awareness among the resource users about the interaction of various coastal components and they do not have enough knowledge about their importance, utilisation and conservation.
"It is time to introduce and publicise eco-tourism to preserve the last evidence of priceless coral and sea turtles from the unique island," they said.
Experts opined that biodiversity damage has already been made up to a great extent in the fragile island in the mane of tourism but still there may be time to save what remains. All the stakeholders including government policy makers should come forward to save the marine biodiversity of this important island and the livelihood of the local people before it's too late, they said.
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