The island of St. Martins is a coral island located in the northeastern part of Bay of Bengal, about 9 km south of the tip of Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsula forming the southernmost part of Bangladesh. Geographically, the Island is divided into three parts i.e. Narikel Jinjira on the northern side, Dakshinpara on the southern side and a narrow central belt Maddhyapara connecting the other two parts. In addition to the main island there are a number of tiny islets ranging from 100 to 500 sq. m that are locally known as Chheradia or Siradia meaning ‘separated island.’
The Island of St. Martin’s is roughly flat and only above 3.6 m above the sea level. The entire island can be walked about in 3 hours. This population of 6,000 islanders survive through fishing and tourism.
The Island is the only coral Island of the country containing several small organic coral colonies in small sheltered pools near the low tide level surrounding it. Known for its unique natural beauty with white sandy beaches fringed with coconut palms, the Island has a bountiful and diverse marine life holding at least 153 varieties of fauna, 157 varieties of mangrove, 66 kinds of coral, 187 types of bivalves and 240 types of marine fish. This Island is one of the largest fish exporters of the country. Its coral reefs are moreover used as a source of biomedical compounds for treating breast cancer, tumor and other diseases and are also used as pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, enzymes, pesticides and cosmetics. In addition to the corals, protected inhabitants of the Island include three species of sea turtles, i.e., the Olive Ridley, Hawks Bill and Green turtles that swim up onto the western coast of the Island to nest. These sea turtles lay eggs on the Island due to its unpolluted and peaceful environment. Of these, the Olive Ridley and Green turtles are listed in the IUCN Red Data as critically endangered species. The endangered turtles were being caught, killed and tortured in a bid to amuse the tourists.
Except the 22 acres of land acquired by the government, the rest of the Island is under private ownership. In recent times, due to the expansion of unregulated commercial tourism, the Island is facing increasing erosion, contamination of surface and ground water, wildlife displacement, loss of biodiversity, loss of recreational corridors and scenic vistas.
To address this, the Government through Gazette Notifications dated 19 April 1999 and 29 June, 1999, declared 590 hectars of St. Martins Island as Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) under section 5 of the Environment Conservation Act, 1995 and prohibited unauthorized constructions therein. The Government also formed a committee on 7 January, 2007 to identify buildings that have no environmental clearances (ECs) and are causing damage to the ecology of the Island and its water resources. The committee submitted its report on 3 May 2007 listing 33 hotels, motels and restaurants that have been constructed without EC and after the declaration of the Island as ECA. The report described the ecology of the Island as ‘threatened’ due to irresponsible activities of the 1000-1500 tourists that visited the Island daily in the lean period (2007). The report of the committee gave an alarming picture of contaminated water on the Island. Since the water level in the lsland is just below 8-10 feet, the sewage from the hotels reaching the said depth was found to contaminate the water table at a dangerous level.
Subsequent to the report, the government decided to stop construction of structures in the Island and to take measures to protect the breeding ground of the turtles. Such decisions of the government were not implemented which is evident from a subsequent report of the Coastal and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project (CWBMP) of the Department of Environment, which recorded another 74 hotels, motels, restaurants in the Island. Newspaper reports of 2009 also suggested that the number of tourists that visited the Island raised up to 6000 per day. The 2011 Master Plan prepared for the Island also noted that everyday around 5000 tourists visited the Island while its total population stood only 6000 inhabitants.
Such expansion of unregulated commercial tourism has left its toll on the fragile ecosystem of the Island. The negative consequences experienced by the communities due to such pressures still remained which included wildlife displacement, loss of biodiversity, loss of recreation corridors, scenic vistas, surface and groundwater contamination and increased erosion. Other threats included cutting of sand dune vegetation for fuel-wood and hotel establishment; degradation of sand dune habitat due to hotel establishment; the harvesting of turtle eggs; indiscriminate and uncontrolled exploitation of coral resources; conversion of lagoons and rocky land habitat to agriculture; siltation of marine waters; deforestation; unplanned and unregulated tourism; destructive fishing methods; hunting of shorebirds; coastal erosion and coral damage due to shell collection and boulder removal; and pollution and land degradation from domestic sources, agricultural practices, fish processing practices and boat discharges.