Why the St Martin’s Island should be declared a marine protected area

Bangladesh’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers 1,18,813 km2 of the Bay of Bengal’s large marine ecosystem, located in the southeast corner of the country. With a 710 km coastline and three major coastal zones Bangladesh possesses a unique coastal and marine habitat.

This marine ecosystem is rich in biodiversity that encompasses a large number of fish, mollusk, mangrove, coral, plankton, seagrass and seaweed species.

However, the ecosystem and biodiversity are under threat due to anthropogenic pressure, overexploitation, environmental change, and lack of awareness. Because of this, conservation initiatives are urgently needed for Bangladesh.

Declaration of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is one the modern concepts for conserving natural biodiversity. MPAs are dedicated spaces in the ocean for protecting and maintaining biological diversity as well as associated cultural resources.

The government of Bangladesh has already declared two MPAs. In 2014, “Swatch of No Ground” was declared as the country’s first MPA, covering an area of 1,738 km2.

In 2019, the government declared another 3,188 km2 around the Nijhum Dwip Island as the second MPA/marine reserve, which increased the country’s MPA coverage to 2.8% of its EEZ.

A number of management options are available, most are focused on fisheries, such as fishing ban periods and restrictions on mesh size. But since this area is a hotspot for a wide range of species, from primary producers to top predators, a holistic approach is required to conserve biodiversity, so declaring a new MPA here would be a good option for conserving the multifariousness in this area.

Taking the above into account, funded by USAID Bangladesh, WorldFish’s Enhanced Coastal Fisheries in Bangladesh II (ECOFISH II) Activity, in collaboration with Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST), conducted a thorough study from January 2020 to June 2021 to evaluate the potential of declaring the Teknaf–St. Martin’s peninsula an MPA.

During this study, data was collected on the environment, biodiversity, ecological habitats, fishing and fishers’ socioeconomic conditions.

Based on the study, community consultations and other relevant available socio-ecological information, the interdisciplinary team developed recommendations for establishing a new MPA in the waterscapes around the Teknaf–St. Martin’s Island peninsula, covering an area of 2,845 km2.

Considering the responsible restrictions necessary for proper management and monitoring, the proposed MPA is divided into four zones with four levels of restrictions.

Zone 1 (41 km2) would be like a red zone, where no fishing or any activities destructive to the habitat would be allowed. In Zone 2 (886 km2), no fishing activities would be allowed, but sailing, mooring and diving activities would be permitted, subject to specific limitations.

Zone 3 (1,341 km2) would generally be a buffer zone that lies between the exterior of the water area and the restricted protected zone, with recreational navigations, research and fishing activities being allowed. Zone 4 (577 km2) would be like a green zone, where low-impact tourism activities could be allowed, alongside educational and research activities.

As such, the proposed MPA is an important timely initiative to sustainably manage the unique coral habitat and its rich biodiversity, especially the colorful reef fish as well as megafauna, such as sharks, skates, rays, turtles and dolphins.

Through sustainable biodiversity conservation and management, fish production would increase and the socioecological resilience of fishers’ communities would improve.

Taken together, these actions would protect and restore this unique coral habitat. Finally, by declaring this 2,845 km2 an MPA, the country would add another 2.4% toward its target of having 10% of its EEZ declared as MPAs.

For the successful implementation of the proposed MPA, it is important to ensure stakeholder engagement, focusing on the Department of Fisheries, Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, various law enforcement agencies, local administration, local leaders and fishers.

It is also important to the proposed MPA area for declaration under the Marine Fisheries Act 2020 (Clause 3) with emphasis on to regulate the number of tourists and tourist activities, in such a way that ensures no significant impacts on resources and habitats, stops extraction of coral completely, and regulates and minimises seaweed collection.

A greater emphasis should be given to promote Alternate Income Generating Activities (AIGAs) for the fishing communities dependent on these resources through government support and introduction of Payment for Ecosystem Services.

Dr Md Abdul Wahab is the Team Leader of USAID/ECOFISH II Activity, WorldFish Bangladesh.

Dr Subrata Sarker is an Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of Oceanography at the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST).

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.

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