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Gone with shifting tides – how climate change is wiping out coastal professions, lifestyle

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Published at The Business Standard

Published date : 06 September, 2019, 02:00 pm

By SHAMSUDDIN ILLIUS

The Bengali tradition of naming children after marine resources such as Mukta, Shukti and Jhinuk is becoming rare as their habitats are destroyed by pollution and climate change

Bibula Begum lost her only livelihood of harvesting pearls from molluscs and selling them to the local market due to the ongoing extinction of the mollusc hotbed in the region. Bibula shows off a pearl she kept as a memento, photo taken on May 15, 2019 by Shamsuddin Illius/TBS

Masuma Akhter, a resident of Moheshkhali Island in Cox’s Bazar, began collecting and selling seashells when she was just a little girl.

As she grew up, Masuma married her neighbour Abdul Monaf after a 10-year romance, who she had first met while searching for seashells on the beach. Masuma nicknamed her niece Mukta (Bangla for pearl), the prized treasure found inside oysters.

Different types of seashells used to be an easy find in Ghatibhanga area, where the couple hails from. A much sought after marine commodity, seashells fuelled domestic coastal economy along the Bay of Bengal, until it slowly became overshadowed by climate change.

Masuma now works as a seamstress for her community, while her husband Monaf works in a fishing boat. The couple faces a constant struggle to make ends meet.

“When I had to give up collecting and selling seashells, my husband was unable to support our family on his income alone. So I learned sewing and began working as a seamstress to help out with the expenses. But we are not making nearly enough money,” said Masuma, who gave up collecting seashells 12 years ago because of its growing scarcity.

The story of this couple is not an isolated incident as many are leaving their decades-old profession of trading seashells. The marine commodity is becoming scarcer due to habitat destruction triggered by the ongoing climate change.

“Climate change, [rising] sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, development initiatives and human interventions are primarily responsible for changing or destroying mollusc habitats,” said Dr M Shahadat Hossain, a professor at the Institute of Marine Sciences of the University of Chittagong.

Generations of people have long depended on seashells and other marine resources as a source of income.

Dead molluscs from different species scattered across the St Martin Island beach, photo taken on May 16, 2019 by Shamsuddin Illius/TBS

On a steady path to extinction

For the past 15 years, at least 300 families have changed their professions from harvesting seashells to working as day labourers, fishermen or harvesting sea salt, according to local public representatives and people connected to these professions.

“My region was a hotbed for different species of molluscs and bivalve. Many people used to harvest them for collecting pearls, making ornaments, poultry feed, and lime. Some people, especially the Buddhists, also eat molluscs,” said Nurul Amin, a former chairman of Kutubzum Union Parishad of Moheshkhali upazila.

“Gradually, the hotbed was destroyed, forcing people to change their professions,” he added.

Experts have listed three primary reasons behind the steady destruction of mollusc habitats – sedimentation caused by morphological changes, increasing salinity in sea water due to artificial enclosures for cultivating fish, and rising sea temperatures.

Harvesting sea salt is also more profitable than collecting seashells.

“I can earn more than Tk300 a day by harvesting sea salt, compared to Tk150 I used to make by collecting and selling seashells,” said Badiul Alam, 75, a resident of Sonadia Island.

“Nothing was the same after the 1991 cyclone, which claimed the lives of more than 138,000 people. The habitats of seashells were gradually destroyed. We were not getting seashells and pearls as before, so we left the profession,” he added.

Badiul gave up collecting seashells around 20 years ago. He now catches fish and harvests sea salt to survive.

However, Md Shamsul Alam, 55, is among the very few who are still in the profession because he has no other option. “I am illiterate, I do not have other skills and have no land to harvest salt,” he said.

Anisuzzaman Khan, a biodiversity conservation officer at the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project’s Biodiversity Conservation Programme, said: “Though sedimentation is a natural phenomenon in inter-tidal coastal [ecosystems], the enclosures are a barrier to the natural free flow of water and close the inter-tidal mudflat ecosystem.

Fifth grader Shahin Alam, fourth grader Shafayat Ullah and local youth Parvez harvesting molluscs at Sonadia Channel in Moheshkhali, photo taken on May 15, 2019 by Shamsuddin Illius/TBS

“Molluscs along with other marine invertebrates, including crabs, oysters, bivalves, starfish, jelly fish, soft coral, sea pen, sea anemone, ostracods, annelida, platyhelminthes and nematodes prefer the inter-tidal sand and mudflats as their feeding, grazing, roosting and breeding ground.”

Anisuzzaman added that when an enclosure is made in this habitat, the beach becomes infertile and biologically inert.

“When it comes to coral, pollution destroys its natural food pyramid and food cycle. Oil droplets from tourism boats and sediments carried by tides from sea, bury the coral and destroy its breeding cycle. Extreme temperature causes coral bleaching,” he said.

He also blamed over exploitation of coral and molluscs for their disappearance around the St Martin’s and Sonadia islands.

“If human-induced factors continue to accelerate the change in climate, then the local flora and fauna will fail to adapt quickly and become extinct,” Khan said, pointing out how the very name of the island of Sonadia comes from the pearl extracted from the bivalve mollusc (Kortal), once found in superabundance there, but now on the verge of extinction.

“Molluscs are very sensitive and they die very quickly,” said Pavel Partha, a researcher on climate change and the people living on river and coastal areas, adding that the rise of saline concentration and temperature is related to the ongoing climate change.

A cultural shift

The transition of coastal professions due to climate change has led to an even bigger cultural shift.

Dr Anupam Sen — a noted social scientist and vice chancellor of Premier University, said: “Most people are now detached from the nature. So, they no longer give their children nature-inspired names.”

The Bengali tradition of naming children after marine resources such as Mukta (pearl), Shukti (oyster), Jhinuk (bivalve), Saikat (beach), Probal (coral) and Saibal (algae), is becoming more rare in many parts of the country as their habitats are destroyed by pollution and climate change, said several social scientists and biodiversity experts.

Masuma Akhter Shanta, who once made a living from harvesting pearls, gave up her lifelong profession to become a seamstress after the local mollusc hotbed inched closer towards extinction, photo taken on May 15, 2019 by Shamsuddin Illius/TBS

“The livelihood of the coastal and rural communities near the Bay of Bengal has long been dependent on beaches, rivers and estuaries where algae, pearls and molluscs thrive. As such, people were fond of giving their children names or nicknames derived from nature,” Dr Sen added.

Molluscs, pearls and coral were once commonly found in the natural ecosystem of the country’s coastal area, making them an integral part of the local culture.

Is recovery possible?

A number of marine biologists and environmentalists have suggested intensifying conservation and creating alternative opportunities for the people who are still involved with harvesting molluscs as a way to protect the biodiversity from further degradation.

“People used to live alongside the nature, but for the sake of development we are now destroying nature. We have to be careful about nature, culture, and society and to live in harmony with nature,” said Dr Sen.

As the whole ocean ecosystem is changing, other animals are also in danger, said climate change researcher Partha, who has called on the government to stop the illegal harvesting of molluscs and coral and focus on developing a blue economy based on marine resources.

Shamsul Alam and his daughter harvesting molluscs at the Sonadia Channel in Moheshkhali, photo taken on May 15, 2019 by Shamsuddin Illius/TBS

“The government has made some efforts to conserve marine life in the country. In 1999, officials declared Sonadia an ‘ecologically critical area’ and banned mollusc harvesting to control further damage,” said Zamirul Islam, Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Moheskhali upazila.

“We conduct regular drives to stop the illegal extraction of molluscs,” he said.

Mohammad Moazzem Hossain, Chattogram Regional Director for the Department of Environment (DoE) said that the government has taken on a project that aims to enhance biodiversity at St Martin Island by engaging the local community in conservation initiatives and promoting eco-tourism.

Showpieces made from different types of coral and molluscs being sold at Cox’s Bazar beach, photo taken on June 10, 2019 by Shamsuddin Illius/TBS

The project will also initiate research and implement conservation measures for coral and develop a waste management system on the island.

The project is scheduled to be completed by June, 2020.

Shamsuddin Illius
Shamsuddin Illius is a print and online media journalist. He has been working in the field (fulltime) of journalism since 2010. He is very much passionate about journalism since his early age. Currently he is the Bureau Chief-Chittagong at The Business Standard.

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