Mother turtles face increasing danger at St Martin’s

Photo shows a dead turtle on St Martin’s Island beach on 23 January 2024.Prothom Alo

Coral island St Martin’s Island of Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar is the breeding ground of several species of turtles. Mother turtles came to St Martin’s Island from the deep sea to lay eggs. But, this breeding ground now faces increasing danger because of the use of banned fishing nets, the increase of stray dogs, the presence of more tourists and pollution. Six dead turtles floated ashore in Baliary beach on St Martin’s Island between 17-25 January.

Researchers said November-April is the sea turtle nesting season. Mother turtles have already started coming ashore to lay eggs, but many of them are dying because of the hostile environment. All of the six dead turtles that were recovered last week were Olive Ridley sea turtles, one the endangered species of sea turtles world. These turtles weighed 35-40 kg and had injury marks on their bodies.

A 35-kg mother floated ashore on the beach on the north side of St Martin’s Island on January 25. Another dead turtle was recovered on the west side on 23 January, another on the north side on 20 January, two turtles in Konapara and Dhakkhinpara beach on 18 January and a mother turned floated ashore on the Golachira beach of the island on January 17.

Funded by USAID, the non-government organisation Community Development Centre (CODEC) is working to conserve turtles on St Martin’s Island. They took up the Nature and Live Project to save turtles.

Project director Shital Kumar Nath said five species of sea turtles have been found in Bangladesh so far, with Olive Ridley seen frequently. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) included Olive Ridley turtles on the red list.

Danger for turtles

Md Farid Ahsan, a professor at Chittagong University, researched endangered turtles in Cox’s Bazar area. He identified 11 existential threats to sea turtles. These include the destruction of turtle nests on Cox’s Bazar sea beach by the development of unplanned infrastructures, the use of banned gill nets, known as current nets, and tana nets, random lighting in the beach area, killing mother turtles caught in fishing nets, throwing abandoned fishing nets in the sea, diving on the beach during turtle reproduction season, playing games and smuggling turtle eggs.

Besides, fishermen often leave current and bihingi nets in the sea near the St Martin’s Island beach. Besides, large fishing boats increasingly use trawling nets. Mother turtles die from these three kinds of fishing nets. Some turtles manage to swim ashore to lay eggs, but stray dogs eat their eggs.

Fisherman Mohammad Ullah, 42, is from Shah Porir Dwip of Teknaf. He told Prothom Alo where these banned fishing nets are used and how. He said fishermen use banned nets to catch various fishes including Popa, lottya (Bombay duck), fayssha (scaly hairfin anchovy), knife fish and hilsa. Numerous turtles are caught in these fishing nets. Since turtles tear fishing nets, fishermen kill them and throw them to the sea. Besides, more than 300 bihingi nets remain laid on the Naikhongdia channel of St Martin’s Island, killing the turtle every day.

DoE faces a staff shortage

The Department of Environment (DoE) has taken no noticeable initiative to save turtles on St Martin’s Island. DoE’s St Martin Island office (additional charge) inspector Faizur Kabir said, “We have two employees here, no officials. They collect turtle eggs and cover those under sand at a hatchery. When baby turtles are born, they are then release the babies in the sea.”

Fewer mother turtles come ashore now because of lighting on structures and tourist movements on the beach. Turtles that come to lay eggs are dying every day after being attacked by dogs, but they can do nothing due to shortage of staff.

Private initiatives to save turtles

Initiatives have been taken by non-government sector stakeholders to save sea turtles. Under the CODEC’s Nature and Live Project, turtles are being conserved in a 40-km-long beach stretching from Madarbunia of Jaliapang union parishand of Ukhiya to Khurer Mukh area of Sabrang union parishad of Teknaf upazila.

Launched in 2021, campaigns are being run under this project to highlight the importance of saving turtles among locals and the fishing community. Besides, five turtle hatcheries have been set up in a 40-km-long coastal area to increase turtle production, and 10 guards have been deployed to save turtle eggs.

Experts said a certain location of the sandy beach must be preserved where mother turtles can lay eggs, and dogs will not be roaming around.

COCEC Nature and Live Project deputy director Narayan Das told Prothom Alo Cox's Bazar is an ecologically endangered area, and there are certain guidelines on management for such area, but these guidelines are not maintained to set up establishments in the beach area. However, if these guidelines are followed, it will be easier to save endangered turtles, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna.