Saving Saint Martin’s Island is not a lost cause, yet

It is true that what is left of the coral colonies in the Bay of Bengal around Saint Martin’s Island is almost a ruin. But it is not lost yet. Still, we’ve time to salvage the almost collapsed social-ecological systems of St. Martin’s Island.

Peoples say the local population is growing rapidly, tourists are coming in droves, in thousands and the island is losing its natural beauty; more than that, the local people are not cooperating with any efforts of environmental protection, so on and so on. In short, the island does not stand any chance when it comes to protecting its biodiversity and touristic attractions.

Such has been the narrative since we’ve started working in St. Martins. At least, I am getting these speeches from the people and institutions that are responsible for environmental protection of Bangladesh’s only island with coral associations.

In addition, this narrative is being repeated once again in the wake of the government’s recent initiative to promote more tourism in the area, among other seemingly horrific things, which also include making it a destination for a regional Ocean cruise.

Indeed, the scenario is not something which can be described as ‘promising’. Even the government has acknowledged the scenario by declaring the terrestrial area of the SMI as an ‘Ecologically Critical Area’ long ago in 1999. And the irony is, the degradation of coral habitat finally started with introducing irresponsible tourism back in 2013 under a Ministry of Environment and Forest run project titled ‘Promoting eco-tourism in Saint Martin’s Island’.

You just can’t allow ships coming into a very shallow coral habitat carrying thousands of tourists daily and host minimum three-thousand strong entourage on the island overnight. Only responsible ‘marine’ tourism (such as Diving, Snorkeling, Sailing, Angling and harmless watching from the onboard boat without big propeller) is counted as ‘Eco-tourism’ in a coral habitat. But the ministry did the opposite thing under the eco-label of ‘eco-tourism’ with expected consequences.

And now, about 67% of the coral is bleached to death, according to a survey. So, it would, of course, be foolhardy to say that, everything is fine in the SMI. But it would be equally hard to argue that, the island with its coral colonies is beyond saving, which I’ve heard from almost every government officials, conservation practitioners, and researchers I’ve ever met. Because what do we need is just reverse the process; shutting down irresponsible tourism. It works.  A closer look deep into the coral colonies around SMI, in fact, will assure you about this.

Saint Martin's Island

I took this photo last year after two consecutive tourist seasons were largely disrupted by the nation-wide violence erupted in the wake of last general election. Healthy coral colonies; It was an unusual sight in the island during last decade and after tourism fully revived last year. If we can have a planned retreat from the island for more years, say we keep the tourism shut for ten years, help it to regenerate, we will able the salvage the coral habitat.

So chances are good. Besides, the corals here in SMI are more tolerant than purely marine populations, it seems.

Saint Martin's Island

The photo says it all. It seems that species in St. Martin’s Island are too tolerant to be easily defeated by siltation. Like other coral colonies under the influence of estuarine sedimentation, they fight longer with the adverse environmental attribute.

And about the narrative that, the extent of degradation of the ecosystem is so high that, taking any small effort now (like what Save Our Sea is now trying to do by engaging tourism businesses and community) will be like bailing out a barge with a bucket. I do agree about the bucket. And this is what we need.

 

Team Turtle

The ‘Team Turtle’; in nesting season of 2015-16, 38 of the volunteers patrolled the beach at night to protect the nesting sea turtles. Coordinated by Save Our Sea, they were on their own, and thanks to the Department of Environment to house them at the Island. While the government and NGO-run turtle conservation efforts largely produced dubious success stories, the turtle volunteer activity continues to document the real scenarios and engaging local youth in conservation without any monetary incentives.

‘Project-based approach’ did not work in the coastal region (such as Saint Martin’s Eco-tourism Project, Coastal, and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project). Because these sorts of big projects run by desk-based managers and experts are designed to be doomed. Without any understanding of the community and ecosystem, these projects actually accelerated and covered-up the degradation of SMI. They did more harm than good by alienating the local community. So, instead of big fat bideshi or deshi projects, we need to start small.

 

Team Turtle

This photo is something, which testifies to people’s power to protect nature’s magnificent creatures. The turtle nest was saved by the volunteers from disastrous nest-relocation, which saw at least 600 unsuccessful hatchlings in the island in last season only. On the night of nesting, after almost months of intensive activity on the island, the Save Our Sea team was out the money. The price of the fencing materials was bKash-ed by one of our colleague from Dhaka, the fence was made-installed and maintained by local youth. Later we have conserved (in-situ) two more nests in the last season.

Rather than siphoning off foreign or domestic taxpayer’s money on designed-to-be-doomed projects, we need to start to remove the legal restriction on the community (who was the protector of the island before irresponsible tourism started) so that they can simultaneously rehabilitate the ecosystem and revive the marine fisheries, which is their most sustainable option for livelihoods.

 

Save Our Sea Team

Dr. Kazi Ahsan Habib (left) and Alifa Bintha Haque (right); two of the researchers with Save Our Sea, who joined the team voluntarily to delineate ecosystem boundary of the Island. Without any financial consideration, they took conservation as their responsibility to discharge with own capacity. We do hope, the conservationists will get it that, being ‘hired’ by some agencies or projects does not make one a conservationist. Conservation is not something we can wait to be ‘funded’ by some other external forces; rather as part of nature, it is our job to take part and fund conservation efforts with our own capabilities. I am optimistic; I can see many of the young professionals are thinking this way.

The efforts needed to be rooted in the community in a true sense. If we can make it happen, passionate conservationists, other individuals, and institutions will certainly join the efforts with their own capacity, as they are doing right now with Save Our Sea.

 

Save Our Sea

The smile of volunteers. Heroes from our local Turtle Team and cleanup volunteers with Enamul Mazid Khan Siddique (fourth from the left). Despite having a full-time job in a I-NGO, Siddique personally helped the students and other young professionals in Bangladesh with training, guidance, and inspiration to build their lives around coastal and marine conservation. The list of such conservationists by passion we know is much longer in Bangladesh and other Bay of Bengal countries. This brings me the hope that once more organized, these people are going to bring some real change for Saint Martin’s Island and other coastal and marine ecosystems.

This post I guess explains why I’m optimistic, why I’m supporting hope over fear. The photos, I hope, explain that we’ll be able to see a locally-led marine protected area in Saint Martin’s Island very soon.

 

Photos: © Mohammad Arju

 

(This post was first published on Save Our Sea’s blog)

Humans of Hilsa

The last ban season (October 12 – November 2, 2016) to protect spawning Hilsa alias Ilish has gone well. After the ban; catching, selling, transportation and hoarding of hilsa resumed on November 3. The prohibition on fishing was enforced in 7,000 square kilometers of Hilsa breeding grounds in outer and inner coastal districts.

Shoals of mother Ilish start swimming upstream from the sea towards the rivers, weeks before the full moon in October (Ashwin in Bengali calendar), and they return to the sea after spawning Usually 15-day long, the ban has been extended to 22 days this year. While the years of consecutive ban season delivers result now, the king Hilsa is returning to the rivers, but how’s life for the fisher folks?

I traveled to the coastal districts during the ban to meet the fishers- who contributed to this conservation success despite being ultra poor.

Hilsa Fisher 1

On the second day of the ban, Abdul Hamid was busy in sorting out fishing gears at Patharghata landing station in coastal Barguna district. The boat has returned to the sea after the ban ended on 2nd November, but he has not and will not until the next monsoon because at the late sixties ‘he just can’t handle the chilly weather out there’ said fellow fisher folks. In winter, he will work in the field to support his extended family. Hailing from Padma village on the bank of Bishkhali River, Mr. Hamid is in fishing since his early age, but never got any financial assistance or free rice during ban periods, which the Department of Fisheries officials say they distribute among tens of thousands of fishers in 85 coastal sub-districts.

 

Hilsa Fisher 3

At least 900 fishermen got arrested and jailed for seven days to two years for violating the fishing ban across the region. This group of fishermen said people were arrested even while taking the boat to the harbor for repair and maintenance.  ‘What troubles me the most is replacing of an appreciation of the science of the fishing embargo and community motivation with the fear of punishment. Fear is the only driver that keeps the fishermen on the bank during the ban,’ said conservationist Mahatub Khan Badhon.

 

Hilsa Fisher 2

After the last fishing trip of the open season, crews of FV Anukul-2 got back from the Swatch of No Ground in the Bay of Bengal. Fishing in the open season was extraordinary this year with an unprecedented big catch of Hilsa in more than a decade. The catch soared up to half a million tons just before the ban began, said Fisheries Research Institute’s center at Chandpur. This is a huge surge from 1,99,000 tons back in 2002 or even the last year’s 3,87,000 tons. So, the 22 straight days of the last ban was time for some boat-keeping, sorting out the nets and many repairs.

 

Hilsa Fisher 4Kalam Miah, ‘the giant catfish’, as his fellow fisher folks call him, lives on the bank of the mighty Padma in Rajbari district. During the ban on Hilsa fishing, this inner coast fishing community was still in the river with their nets especially made for catfish. Mesh size of their net is so big that average Hilsa can get through, but not their targeted giant freshwater catfishes such as Boal, Aor, Pungus. First imposed in 2003-04 the October ban to protect spawning Hilsa was 15-day long in previous years, in place to an area of 7,000 square kilometers that includes rivers in 27 districts. This year, along with the extended time, it also included the coastal water and the total area of Exclusive Economic Zone in the Bay of Bengal.

 

Hilsa Fisher 5

On last day of the ban, the painter was giving his last touch to the boats. He traveled to this fishing hamlet in the outskirts of Chittagong to ‘decorate’ the boats before they sail again into the sea next morning. The major share of Bangladesh’s marine catch comes from this kind of mechanized and non-mechanized small boats, which last year accounted for 515000 metric tons, 85.86% of the total marine catch. Official estimates limit the number of these mostly artisanal fishing boats within 68,000. Back home in the central coast district of Feni, the painter owns one.

 

Hilsa Fisher 6

With this dinghy and small-mesh driftnet, Mohammad Ismail managed a fortune from Hilsa fishing at Haringhata River in the open season. The price he got over a couple of months before the ban started was ‘over one lakh and ten thousand takas,’ he said. Visiting the neighborhoods with the newly bought cell phone in the pocket was the only ‘work’ he was doing during the ban. ‘No one will observe the fishing ban if the Coast Guard was not there because it’s just impossible to resist the temptation of Hilsa’ said Mr. Ismail.

 

(This photo-story was first published by Daily Sun on November 26, 2016 titled ‘Hilsa Heroes’)

Bangladesh’s southernmost community hopes there are more fish in the sea

When entering Teknaf from Ukhiya sub-district, the landscape remains similar on both sides; high and low hill ranges in the east, a narrow strip of tidal floodplain and beach ridges in the west. Communities living in hills and lower plain has a distinctively different socio-cultural structure based on their ethnicity, rights over land and other natural resource uses and religion; their options for livelihoods varies accordingly.  Refugee flow from neighboring Myanmar is a source of social and economic tension. As a border-region refugee crisis, human trafficking and undocumented trans-border business have impact on about every aspect of life and livelihoods in the localities.

Communities living on the western side are largely affected by degradation of beach and dune system, coastal erosion and in the struggle to adapt to agricultural practices in the face of dwindling fish stock in the bay. In the Hnila Union where Naf river enters Teknaf sub-district, a narrow strip of tidal floodplain runs along the river bank towards the bay of Bengal, which was totally covered by mangroves once. On the other side, hill ranges end nearly at the border of Sabrang Union, just before the southernmost settlements of mainland Bangladesh. About half of the areas of the Sadar Union and most of  Sabrang Union remains intermittently flooded throughout the year. The inter-tidal zone provides ground for crab fishing to hundreds of families here. Overall Sadar and Sabrang Union communities are most vulnerable to floods, rising level of tide, increased salinity and other extreme weather events.

Two fishers in Naf Estuary
Nurul Hasan (left) younger brother is still in Malaysia working as an undocumented and illegal worker. The two brothers took the boat to ‘seek a nice job’ and crossed the bay of Bengal as he describes it ‘by evading Bangladeshi border guard’s reluctant eyes and then with help from Burmese and Thai security personnel’. Nurul found the job of gardener as comfortable but returned to the home several months later as he recalls it; ‘I felt like I’m not at home, then took the chance of Malaysian government clemency and took the flight to Dhaka with travel documents issued by them ’. Now he is struggling to cope with very limited income from daily fishing and his family mostly depends on money his younger brothers sending home regularly.

In northern parts of the Sub-district shrub, coarse grasses and bamboos have taken place of degraded hill forests. These hills originally were covered by Dipterocarp forest. Deforestation continues, mainly due to illegal logging and agriculture. Some hills are designated as legally protected forests (read, ‘plantations’). Though illegal, but communities largely depend on agriculture in the forest and highlands. Farming for betel-leaf, betel-nut, and banana is dominant in the hills and forest lands. Farming increases the risk of soil erosion on the hill slopes. The hills are extensively drained by creeks and small waterfalls, but during monsoon when heavy rainfall continues the saturated hill soils are prone to landslides causing deaths and damage to properties.

In north-western communities, dependence on marine-fishing has decreased rapidly. People say that, with increased costs of operating motorized boats and fallen stocks of fish in the sea, fishing is not considered as a trusted option for livelihoods anymore. They are accustomed to going fishing in August-September and January-March periods only when a number of brackish water small-sized species is found in abundance.

Shah Parir Dweep
Due to intermittent floods and salinity intrusion, agriculture, aquaculture or salt farming is difficult now. This portion of Teknaf, from Sabrang to Shah Parir Dweep remains underwater round the year, apparently due to rise of high tide’s level, as the local elders suggest. They use mechanized boats to ferry the essential goods and passenger across this newly created ‘wetland’.

Bombay duck (Harpadon neherues), Greenback mullet (Chelon subvirdis), Gold-spotted grenadier anchovy (Coilia Dussumieri), Ramcarat grenadier anchovy (Coilia ramcarati), Tongue soles (family Cynoglossidae), Bigeye ilisha (Ilisha megalopetra) and Pama croaker (Otolithoides pama) traditionally formed the main catch. Fishers say it seems that these fishes aren’t available now in near-shore shallow areas they usually fish in. They now need to go in the deeper area which they can’t due to lack of the sea-worthy boat.

The case for fishing almost same in the lower parts ( the , southernmost part of mainland Bangladesh) also. This tidal floodplain at the mouth of Naf river is exposed to storm surges and floods.

Fishing Boat
Fishers s it seems that these fishes aren’t available now in near-shore shallow areas they usually fish in. They now need to go in the deeper area which they can’t due to lack of the sea-worthy boat.

What adds to the fishing scenario for southern and south-western Teknaf is the lack of an alternative. Due to intermittent floods and salinity intrusion, agriculture, aquaculture or salt farming is difficult now. So the communities of Teknaf Sadar and Sabrang who are dependent on Tidal Floodplains, Naf river, Mangroves and Intertidal Zones always struggle to cope with difficulties in fishing.

Mangroves are largely degraded and deforested, but the bare mudflats provide them the opportunity for crab fishing. Mud crabs are also being harvested from inter-tidal zones and intermittently flooded areas between Sabrang and Shah Parir Dwip. Mud crabs have a relatively high price in the market. Export-oriented crab ‘softening’ farms buy the live crabs from the fishers on daily basis.

Families in Sabrang and Shah Parir Dwip manage the right to operate Estuarine Set Bag Nets in the lower parts of Naf river and river mouth on shared basis. They own and operate the boats in groups, and in some cases, they work as labor with a share in the profit. Whatever small is the size of the catch, they continue the operation around the season, because no other alternative is available. Post-harvest processing such as fish drying is almost absent. They sell the fishes in the local market, sometimes suppliers from the urban market by the catch from local collectors.

Abdur Rahman
Abdur Rahman, a shopkeeper and occasional fisher in his early 30s is one of some 40 men encouraging the youth for trying something hard at home for livelihoods, rather than taking an ‘easy’ boat-ride to Malaysia. He organizes villagers in Sabrang to rehabilitate Mangroves, to sustain it ecosystem services mainly ‘fishes and flood-free life’ in his terms. Their group cooperates with the government and the NGO-run program usually, but sometimes he is pessimistic about ‘reporting and run’ approach to the conservation programs. He says, rather than time-bound funded projects, if the government agencies, NGOs and greater civil society based in Dhaka give only moral support to them and little regular financial aid, they can mitigate the problems created by land grabbers restore the Mangrove ecosystems. The case of degraded hill forest in the upper Teknaf is more or less same, he thinks.

Lastly, one important thing; at least one in every six families here have a member currently working in ‘Melesia’ (as they pronounce ‘Malaysia) as an ‘undocumented’ and illegal migrant worker. And off-course they traveled to Malaysia by mechanized boats evading the reluctant eye of Bangladeshi border guards and with the help of Burmese and Thai corps in most cases. Most of the family I’ve encountered is happy in this regard because they say migrant workers are sending home a good amount of money.

How they use the money from Malaysia? They can afford their school going kids now and they invest in activities based on natural resources. Given all the adversities, before taking a boat to Malaysia the young guys just hope that there are more fish in the sea!

Though the tides are too high to farm salt- some of the families are trying, though the land is saline- effort to cultivate them is not so rare, and though the marine fish stock is declining apparently- desperate families sometimes build their own boats till now.

Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar
21st January, 2015

Photos: © Mohammad Arju