The breathtaking beauty of Saint Martin's Island is bound to leave anyone who visits its shores wanting come back for more. Its irresistible charms however, have only served to leave it more vulnerable to the negative externalities of the global tourism industry. In April 2018, we reported how a group of environment officers of different government agencies, in frustrated and driven to their wits' end, had warned that after years of unchecked pollution and excessive tourism, St. Martin's, the country's sole coral island on the Bay of Bengal renowned for its unique beauty and tranquility, was set to lose all its splendour.

The director of the Department of Environment even said that if the current rate of exploitation due to tourism and unfettered construction continued, surely it would not take long for the island to sink. The time was ripe for some drastic measures. Some time after that, a plan was finally taken up to declare some 1,743 square kilometres adjacent to St Martin's Island as a Marine Protected Area. This was first revealed by Environment Minister Md Shahabuddin on World Tourism Day in 2020. That plan was finally put into motion at the start of 2022, some 15 months later. Needless to say, we welcome the declaration wholeheartedly.

Marine Protected Areas are designated to shield threatened marine ecosystems and other undersea resources from intrusive human activity. They also provide living laboratories for oceanographers and marine biologists to conduct research. The area set aside around St Martin's by the government of Bangladesh represents 1.5 percent of its exclusive economic zone. Together with the previously declared MPA around the Swatch-of-No-Ground in the Bay of Bengal, and two other marine reserves declared by the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock, it brings Bangladesh closer to achieving its national goal to protect 10 percent of its marine waters - also an international obligation under the Convention on Biodiversity and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

Besides providing key habitat for the country's only coral reef, the productive waters around St Martin's teem with biodiversity, as well as upwards of 230 finfish species. The new MPA will also protect globally threatened wildlife such as Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, whale sharks, white-spotted whiprays, long-tailed butterfly rays, and olive ridley, green, and loggerhead turtles, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, who worked closely with the government in getting to this point.

The island is also home to around 7,000 residents who depend on seasonal tourism and fishing. Despite considerable efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of the area's booming tourism industry, overexploitation of corals and fisheries, along with uncontrolled waste and light pollution, have taken a heavy toll on marine biodiversity around the island.

Proposed regulations in the new MPA include establishing zones with different rules to regulate fishing and vessel traffic. To enforce these rules and monitor compliance, the Forest Department will prepare an integrated management plan where all stakeholders, including local fishermen, will be involved. First steps are to develop a science-based, community-informed management plan, raise awareness about regulations in the MPA, build capacity for conducting government and community-led enforcement and monitoring patrols, controlling domestic waste, and begin restoring degraded corals - all of which WCS will be involved in. Working diligence and commitment, and with a bit of luck, we might just restore this bit of paradise on Earth.

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