Backpackers Tokyo

The natural habitat of Saint Martin’s Island is at risk of irreparable harm from the heaps of plastic waste left behind by hundreds of thousands of visitors to the tourist haven every year.

Layers of these non-decaying waste, including polythene, now blanket the coastal seabed, reducing the coral cover by almost 1,000 square kilometres.

A group of researchers in a study for the Ocean Science Journal last year found that the coral cover of the island shrunk from 1.32 sq km to just 0.39 sq km, while the number of coral species dropped from 141 to 40 between 1980 and 2018.

Volunteers from Travelers of Bangladesh or TOB, a travel and tourism group on Facebook, removed 740 kg of plastic and non-decomposing waste in a drive at the island.

These non-biodegradable materials are being utilised to forge a floating barge with the intent to create awareness.

TOB group administrator Niaz Morshed said, “The island is struggling with the weight of plastic waste thrown away by the tourists. We’ve seen a lot of plastic on the corals. These are from five to seven years ago.

“It’s causing the corals to die. Fishes will not swim in if corals keep dying like this and that also threatens the lives of the people of the island.”

A large portion of the population on the island lives on fisheries, but they are not too well informed about the issue. So volunteers, along with the government, must play a pivotal role in this, Morshed said.

“Saint Martin’s Island, our only coral island, is gradually becoming polluted and heading towards destruction. We might lose the island in the next few years. But no one is focusing on it.”

MORE TOURISTS, DEEPENING WOES

As many as 3,000-4,000 tourists visit Saint Martin’s Island every day from November to January, according to data from Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation.

Such huge traffic into the destination is wrecking the balance of the island, destroying its biodiversity, environmentalists say.

The island did not host more than 200 tourists a year even at the end of the 1990s. The ease of travel and communication, along with other advancements, has raised the number of tourists to around 250,000, while residents of the island swelled by 6,000.

The number of hotels, motels and cottages jumped seven times to more than a hundred in this period as more ships now travel to and from the holiday destination.

The Department of Environment said the number of tourists and their actions must be controlled in a bid to save the ecosystem, advising as far as to impose closure of the island for a specific time.

Ziaul Haque Howlader, manager of Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation’s public relations and marketing department, says the locals are also responsible for tainting the environment.

He said four to five ships, containing more than 1,200 tourists, arrive in the island every day from November to January. But the tourists’ traffic is low during the rest of the year.

“The environment is also being polluted in periods outside that. So it's not only the tourists but the locals are responsible as well.”

However, Sulaiman Haider, director (planning) of Department of Environment, believes the plastic waste might also be coming from other places.

“Saint Martin’s Island is surrounded by the sea. Waste materials could also float here from as far as Cox’s Bazar and even Myanmar. Ships drop a lot of waste on their naval routes. These could float in as well.”

THE TROUBLE WITH PLASTIC WASTE

Haider spoke about a study on how much waste stacks up on Saint Martin’s Island every year.

It estimates that a person living in a city produces 500g of waste per day on average, whereas ones living on the island disposes of 250g of waste a day.

Yet, the lack of proper waste disposal and overall management there is putting the corals and the ecosystem at risk.

Plastic remains intact for years before turning into microplastic, which causes the damage, he said.

“The plastic accumulates on the corals and damages them. The risks get worse when fishes consume these and then are eaten by people.”

Pointing out the risk it poses to the livelihoods of locals who live off fishing, Haider called for a ban on entry to the island for a certain period every year.

He also spoke about the potential economic losses resulting from environmental hazard-induced supply deficiency of fish.

“When the ecosystem of a region heads towards destruction due to the presence of too many people, it is possible to recover it by restricting people's access to it.”

Haider spoke about multiple instances of public notice instructing people about the rules of making a trip there.

“A ban was placed on tourists over spending nights at Saint Martin’s Island as well. Instructions were given about what is allowed and what is not while visiting there even during daytime.”

TOB administrator Morshed said the volunteers placed a symbolic trash bin to encourage people to throw waste at specific places.

“It has been constructed with bamboo depicting a sea-bound boat. I hope the authorities will look into the matter seriously and arrange for a particular place for tourists to dispose of waste.”

Praising the initiative, Teknaf Upazila Nirbahi Officer Parvez Chowdhury revealed plans to preserve the natural beauty of the island.

“Steps had been taken before to reduce the number of tourists visiting the island. It is not possible to build resorts on the streets of Saint Martin’s Island. Yet, most of the structures there were built out of legal bounds.”

“The Department of Environment has a lot to do here. The environment of the region can be saved through a combined effort. And for that, we need a platform.

INFRASTRUCTURES ‘WITHOUT RULES’

Most of the infrastructure on the island is owned by individuals, including businessmen in Dhaka and abroad.

Ziaul believes landowners are constructing fewer buildings now than before. “We are taking steps to raise awareness about this,” he said, adding that the Prime Minister’s Office issued instructions on the issue after forming a committee.

The Coast Guard, Navy, the tourism ministry and the corporation submitted some reports on the matter as well. “We are working on the issue in detail. The committee is doing whatever necessary to protect the environment of St Martin’s island.”

Ziaul also mentioned some challenges. “We can’t tear down the existing infrastructure because many of them are on land owned by individuals. The government doesn’t own the whole area.”

THREE-TERM PLAN

The authorities made long-, mid- and short-term plans last year to preserve the island’s environment and ecology, said Ziaul.

The short-term plan includes raising awareness, prevention of dumping of waste into the sea, keeping bins in the vessels and ensuring their use, imposing a ban on feeding marine life and limiting the number of tourists by launching an online registration system.

Haider said tourists will be able to visit the island by purchasing tickets and paying taxes online once the plan is passed. “It will grow awareness among them.”

In the mid-term plan, the authorities will discourage tourists from staying overnight on the island. They may stay on the vessels. 

The route from Teknaf to St Martin’s and the island will also be declared an economically vulnerable zone.

The long-term plan includes the construction of a shelter for tourists and a jetty.

“The island’s ecosystem has become vulnerable in the past few years. We must work at different levels to save it,” Haider said.