Unplanned tourism damaging Bangladesh’s only coral island

Experts call for underwater research, tourism restrictions to recover from environmental damage.

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AA) – Saint Martin’s Island in Bangladesh is an ideal habitat for corals mainly due to its diversified and enriched ecosystem and marine environment, but studies now show that its coral colonies have been steadily declining.

Sayeed Mahmood Belal Haider, director general of the Bangladesh Oceanographic Research Institute (BORI), in a study paper published in December said the only 7.3 kilometer (4.5 mile) long island has been experiencing a coral bleaching event between 2018 and 2021.

Dead corals and plastic pollution have also been found on the island, he said in his study, adding that E. coli, total coliform and fecal coliform are found in the beach water.

Haider said that during the peak tourist season, around 8,000 visitors come to Saint Martin’s Island every day in 10 cruise ships, which is much higher than its capacity.

A study published last year in the Ocean Science Journal titled “Detection of Coral Reefs Degradation using Geospatial Techniques around Saint Martin’s Island, Bay of Bengal” analyzed images taken from satellites.

In 38 years, the coral cover on the island has decreased from 1.32 square kilometers (0.5 square miles) to 0.39 square kilometers (0.15 square miles). The number of coral species has decreased from 141 to 41. Destruction of the coral reef habitat was basically caused by anthropogenic activities like tourism and extraction of coral by fishermen, it added.

Mohammed Shah Nawaz Chowdhury, an assistant professor of marine sciences at the University of Chittagong, is a renowned ocean expert.

“The condition of the corals is under threat, but we don’t have a recent underwater study except one in 1997 by researcher (Tomas) Thomascik with support from the IUCN,” he said, referring to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“We have some satellite-based studies, but we could not learn the microscopic cause of the situation from those, whereas we don’t have modern technology to determine the situation from the sky to underwater.

“We need immediate underwater research to measure detailed data as we found many species of corals missing in the 1990s … Coral bleaching, a process when corals become white due to hostile conditions, is also found on the island,” he added.

– Climate change, plastic pollution take toll

“The changing climate is also affecting the corals and their habitat on the island. Frequent cyclones along the coastal region, including Saint Martin’s Island, cause the rocks and boulders to get displaced where corals build their colonies,” Chowdhury said.

Meanwhile, deferred or irregular rainfall due to changing weather is also affecting the corals as salinity and water transparency are major factors for corals to live and their good growth, he said.

“Plastic pollution — more hazardously, microplastic pollution — is posing a mounting threat to the island. We recently found the presence of microplastic in marine fish in the Bay of Bengal. We also need research to know how deeply plastic pollution has affected the unique marine ecosystems in the world,” he added, referring to the ecosystem on the island and the coral.

– Plan needed to protect coastal region

Chowdhury suggested a well-designed investment plan that could change the current poor situation as well as generate financial benefit for the country.

“We should separate the island site into three categories, including a restricted zone and tourist zone, so that the island can recover from the environmental damage,” he said.

“Our study shows that Saint Martin’s Island is home to a major portion of our (Bangladesh’s) marine fish due to its enriched habitat, so if we don’t take care of the island, our whole marine biodiversity would be lost.”

Sharif Jamil, an environmental activist and general secretary of the Bangladesh Environment Movement, told Anadolu Agency that Bangladesh’s coastal region is important as it is enriched with so many natural resources and routes for global trade and business.

“If we fail to protect Saint Martin’s Island, the whole coastal region in Bangladesh will be under threat. The government will have to take immediate measures to address the pollution in the coastal region and to protect the country’s maritime boundary.”

Jamil, who is also a council member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on clean water, suggested restricting tourists for the time being and planned tourism to ensure the island makes a recovery.

“There are so many development projects being implemented like sand dragging, LNG terminals and coal power project hubs along the country’s coastal regions. The world’s longest (natural) sea beach, Cox’s Bazar, started experiencing beach damage, and Saint Martin’s Island (will be) no different very soon due to the unplanned development work,” he added.

– National action plan

Mohammad Sulaiman Haider, director (planning) of the Department of Environment, also acknowledged the poor situation on the island, blaming unplanned tourism and a lack of awareness among tourists.

“The water of Saint Martin’s Island has been contaminated, and the presence of harmful bacteria including E. coli have been found as human waste gets mixed with the island water from the resort and hotels there,” Haider said.

High-ranking government officials are aware of the situation on Saint Martin’s Island and effective and immediate measures will be visible soon, he added.

“The government has taken an action plan with support from the World Bank and is waiting for final approval from the prime minister’s office. Once approved, a major change will be there in the implementation phase.”


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