Coral conservation and the St. Martinís Island

Jesmul Hasan

Doug Fenner is an American who works with the Australian Institute for Marine Sciences. He is an specialist in coral taxonomy. He was commissioned by the Tubbataha Project of the World Wildlife Fund Ė Philippines to survey the coral reefs in the famous Anilao atoll in the middle of the Sulu Sea. His experience in Asia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Palau makes him the ideal consultant for coral taxonomy. Of the 790 species of corals, Fenner can identify at least 450 by sight alone. By the time he left Anilao, he reported 29 species of corals that have never been documented in the Philippines publication. The coral species, Eguchipsammia sp., in particular, is quite rare. In fact, it was Fennerís first encounter with live specimen of the species in its natural habitat. The uncommon species, Halomitra clavator, is another favourite of Fenner. And it is only in Anilao where a dense population of few hundred specimens of coral are available. But more important than these discoveries is Fennerís conclusion, which he cited in a report to WWF-Philippines: Ď Anilao area reefs support a very high coral diversity, as high or even higher than the best reef site yet studied within the coral triangle area of highest reef diversity.í 
In the Tubbataha reef, after 19 dives, Fenner counted a total of 240 coral species. In Anilao, after 18 dives, he was able to identify 290 species of corals. The water of Tubbataha, a World Heritage site, is one of the most productive marine ecosystems. But Anilao is richer at least in availability of coral species. There are 411 coral species recorded in the Philippines. More than half of them are found in Anilao. The dive site, Cathedral, with 67 species, is more diverse than the entire Caribbean Sea with only 50 or so species for that entire area. In the world of corals, this may be the Mount Everest of coral biodiversity. 

WWF is approaching conservation in Anilao in two ways. At the ground level, the organisation works with local communities to strengthen marine law enforcement, and has eventually created a costal resource management plan. At the same time, WWF works with the local provincial government of Batangas to come up with bay-wide management plan for the entire Balayan bay. Thus a conservation movement has started to protect the worldís richest coral reserve.

In Bangladesh, the only traditionally known coral island is the St. Martinís Island. Situated 120 miles south of the Chittagong coast in the Bay of Bengal, the island stretches between 20 degrees 34 inches and 20 degrees 38 inches North Latitude and between 92 degrees 19 inches and 92 degrees 21 inches East Longitude. There is a very small chain of 4 islets in the north-south direction from this unique virgin coral island at the south-eastern offshore of the country and is very close to the Akyab coast of the neighbouring Myanmar. The area of the island is about 5 sq. miles. With the rocky platforms extending into the sea, the total area of the island is about 12 sq. miles. A Bangladesh-Dutch study under the Nature Conservation Strategy-2 project has revealed that the island is not actually a coral reef. This island is the surface of a submarine hill which is a part of the Teknaf range stretching from Coxís Bazaar to Teknaf. But a considerable amount of coral deposits every year on the island has given it the apparent look of a coral island. The island is mainly formed with sand stones. Under the administrative control of Chittagong division, St. Martinís is locally known as the Narikel Jinjira (coconut chain) because of its coastal coconut vegetation.

Aman paddy, onion, vegetables, water melon and betel leaf are the main crops of the island. Coconut is grown in the homesteads and the lagoon. Halophytic plants supply fuel to the inhabitants. There are corals, cawries and shells of different kinds and sizes.

The population of the island consists mainly of the descendants of the 13 families who migrated there about a thousand years back. The population has increased much in the recent years. The majority people of St. Martinís suffer seriously from weak economic condition and poor educational facilities.

Having a picturesque landscape the island has developed as a tourist interest. The west coast of this coral island is an important nesting beach of marine turtles in the Bay of Bengal. Olive Ridly and green turtle, two globally threatened species of marine turtles, visit the pristine sandy beach to lay their eggs during the winter.

A wide variety of multicoloured coral reef fishes moon wrasses, parrot, angel, spotted bat, groupers, rabbit, tiger, snappers, soldier fish Ė are very common at the inter-tidal waterlogged areas between coral boulders/rocks and sand dunes. Corals of diverse species are in abundance, ranging from honeycomb, brain coral branch and a dozen more. There are 86 species of coral reef-associated fish belonging to 34 families available here.

Among the marine fishes, skates, ray, pomphrets, together with massive sharks, and rich growth of benthic algae consisting of 165 species under 77 genera have been found in the coral reef of the St. Martinís island. There are mangrove formations at the southern inter-tidal mudflats. Nearly 150 species of shorebirds, including some of the globally threatened waders such as Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmanís Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, etc, used to visit the mudflats during the winter. Twenty two genera and 66 species of corals have also been available here.

The coral reef of the island has never been scientifically investigated except from taxonomic and ecological studies on the algal flora associated with the coral rocks near the shore. The activities of the coral colonies result in calcium carbonate deposit which is very important for the protection of the island and as a habitat for marine algae, a variety of fishes, molluscs and other coelenterates. The see weeds, associated with the reef, have a great potential as food and medicine if properly managed or commercially cultivated.

The recent reports indicate an extensive damage to this ecological habitat resulting in an alarming degree of depletion of the associated algal flora. The coral rocks are being bodily removed to be used as fences around some of the houses near the shore. Direct physical damage to corals by the traders, who cut them up into pieces for sale, is the primary cause for the loss. Corals are very sensitive to environmental conditions and have highly specific requirements of light, temperature, water clarity, salinity and oxygen. Due to heavy pollution caused by dumping fish entrails in the shore water soon after the fish landings and oil spills by the mechanised boats there is a mass expulsion of the sensitive symbiotic zooxanthellae which live in the coral tissues.

There have been scarcely any organised programmes involving diving and underwater photography towards obtaining scientific information regarding the status of the reef in the deeper part of the bay. There is a need for educational programmes on the importance of reef but there is little investment in this field. Reef-related activities could become a major element in tourism and have positive economic benefits through recreation and education in the form of glass-bottom boat rides which are now the traditional tourist attraction in Green Island (northeastern Australia), Fiji, and other islands of the South Pacific. 

The immediate need is to arrest the onslaught on the already damaged reef so that it may regenerate naturally and to prevent further pollution of shore waters to help sustainable development of both the coral colonies and the associated algal flora. Trade in the corals and the associated shells and other fauna should be immediately stopped by legislation and adequate protection given to the reef. If there is sufficient commitment on the part of the government and the civil society, the reef can be protected from degradation. The area can be declared as a marine park prohibiting oil exploration, mining for limestone, littering, fishing and collection of corals, shells and other invertebrates.

As per section 5 of the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995, the Government is empowered to declare any area as ecologically critical area if such an area is threatened to be environmentally critical. The government has recently announced a scheme to establish a national park, Chunoti National Park, in the island. But lack of any specific plan led to stripping of the area of its plants and animals. The island is cyclone-prone and has very poor communication facilities with the mainland. Journey to and from the island by the local mechanised fish boats is a very adventurous one. For divers the island is the virgin one and a lot of species of marine diversity are yet to be discovered. 

Reference: WWF feature, 2001 Wetlands of Bangladesh, (1994), BCAS Bangladesh Environment: Facing the 21st Century, (1998), SEHD

Source: The Holiday, December 28, 2001