The marine biodiversity of Bangladesh’s lone coral island, Saint Martin’s remains under threat due to careless coral collecting, along with unplanned tourism and global warming.
Marine biologists and environmentalists suggested intensifying vigilance and creating alternative opportunities for the coral and shell collectors, aiming to protect the coral reef from further degradation.
On December 4, the Department of Environment (DoE) seized at least 68 pieces of live corals from a boat of coral hunters on the island.
Though the coral hunters managed to flee the scene leaving their boat, the corals were released in the Bay.
Locally known as ‘Narikel Jinjira’, the island is located on the southernmost tip of Bangladesh, separated from the mainland by a 9km wide channel. The government had declared the island “ecologically critical area” in back 1999.
According to the Department of Environment (DoE), the high demand for corals among tourists also contributes to the unabated coral extraction.
An estimate of the DoE says 7,000 people live on the 13 sq km island, which is almost double its accommodation capacity.
During winter, the peak tourist season, some 5,000 to 6,000 tourists throng the island daily, with about a thousand staying there overnight.
There are two groups of professional hunters extracting corals with the help of chisels and hammers, sources said.
Also Read- St Martin’s island: Paradise lost?
One group extracts corals and stones and later sells them to the tourists as souvenirs while the other group sells the same items to ornament-makers.
When contacted, Cox’s Bazar DoE Assistant Director Syful Asrab said it was not possible for them to keep an eye on the matter, because of an acute shortage of manpower in his office.
“There are three islands under my jurisdiction in Cox’s Bazar and it is an uphill task to keep a close eye with only three staff,” he said, advising tourists not to buy souvenirs and ornaments made from the corals.
He also claimed to have learnt that a group of hunters of the island were smuggling the corals to Myanmar.
The DoE official, however, said the information needs to be verified further.
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Corals collected from Saint Martin's Island show signs of degradation Dhaka Tribune
Meanwhile, Anisuzzaman Khan, former biodiversity expert of International Union for Conservation of Nature, Bangladesh, told the Dhaka Tribune that the extraction of corals, mainly for commercial purposes, should be stopped in no time.
The coral species near the jetty on the island have almost vanished, leaving marine lives at stake as 25% of them depend on corals. Corals, both alive (soft) and dead (hard), protect and shelter different fish species, added Anisuzzaman.
“Without coral reefs, fishes will have nowhere to live and spawn eggs,” warned the biologist.
“A considerable amount of coral deposits pile up every year on the island giving the present look of Saint Martin's island. Once the coral is dead, it will cause the reefs to die and erode gradually, destroying important marine life spawning and feeding grounds.
“Animals such as grouper, snapper, oyster and clam, which depend on corals for protection and cover will be in great trouble then,” he expressed his fear.
According to Prof Dr Md Maruf Hossain of Institute of Marine Sciences and Fisheries at Chittagong University, a coral reef is made up of thin layers of calcium carbonate (limestone) secreted over thousands of years by billions of tiny soft-bodied animals called coral polyps.
Coral reefs begin to form when free-swimming coral larvae attach to submerged rocks or other hard surfaces along the edges of islands or continents, he said.
He termed the existence of at least 67 species of corals around Saint Martin's island a good example of co-occurrence of corals, algae, seaweeds, grasses and mangroves.
“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,” said Prof Maruf.
Prof Maruf conducted a study during 2006-2009, on which he later published a research paper styled “Status of the Biodiversity of St. Martin’s Island, Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh.”
Some 234 species of fish were recorded from the coastal water of the Island, of which 98 species were associated with coral, says the research findings.
Excessive exploitation of renewable marine and coastal resources like rocky reef fisheries, corals and shells, and the removal of coastal vegetation from inter-tidal and sub-tidal habitats area major threats to the ecosystem of the unique island.