Masuma Akhter, a resident of Moheshkhali Island in Cox’s Bazar, began collecting and selling seashells when she was just a little girl.
When she grew up, Masuma married her neighbour, Abdul Monaf, following a 10-year romance that began when the pair met while searching for seashells on the beach. The sea and its riches was such a part of Masuma's life that she nicknamed her niece Mukta (Bangla for pearl), the prized treasure found inside oysters.
Different types of seashells used to be an easy find in the Ghatibhanga area, where the couple hails from. A much sought after marine commodity, seashells fuelled the domestic coastal economy along the Bay of Bengal until their numbers started to dwindle.
Masuma now works as a seamstress for her community, while her husband Monaf works on 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 growing scarcity.
The couple's story is not an isolated incident. With seashells becoming scarcer due to habit destruction exacerbated by climate change, many people around the Bay of Bengal are leaving their decades-old profession of trading this marine commodity.
“Climate change, [rising] sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, development initiatives and human interventions are primarily responsible for changing or destroying mollusk 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.
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 mollusks and bivalve. Many people used to harvest them for collecting pearls, making ornaments, poultry feed, and lime. Some people, especially the Buddhists, also eat mollusks,” 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 mollusk habitats – sedimentation caused by morphological changes, increasing salinity in sea water due to artificial enclosures for cultivating fish, and rising sea temperatures.
Meanwhile, harvesting sea salt has become more profitable than collecting seashells.
“I can earn more than Tk300 [US$ 3.55] a day by harvesting sea salt, compared to Tk150 [US$1.77] 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.
Md Shamsul Alam, 55, is among the very few who are still in the profession because he says 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 intertidal mudflat ecosystem.
“Mollusks along with other marine invertebrates, including crabs, oysters, bivalves, starfish, jellyfish, 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 the sea, bury the coral and destroy its breeding cycle. Extreme temperature causes coral bleaching,” he said.
He also blamed overexploitation of coral and mollusks for their disappearance around the St. Martin 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 mollusk (Kortal), once found in superabundance there, but now on the verge of extinction.
“Mollusks are very sensitive and they die very quickly,” said Pavel Partha, a researcher on climate change and communities living in river and coastal areas. The rise in saline concentrations and temperatures is related to the ongoing climate change, he added.
A cultural shift
The transition away from 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 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 marine habitats are destroyed by pollution and climate change, said several social scientists and biodiversity experts.
“The livelihoods of the coastal and rural communities near the Bay of Bengal has long been dependent on beaches, rivers and estuaries where algae, pearls and mollusks 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 mollusks as a way to protect the biodiversity from further degradation.
“People used to live alongside 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 ocean ecosystem changes, other animals are also in danger, said climate change researcher Partha, who has called on the government to stop the illegal harvesting of mollusks and coral and focus on developing a blue economy based on marine resources.
“The government has made some efforts to conserve marine life in the country. In 1999, officials declared Sonadia an ‘ecologically critical area’ and banned mollusk harvesting to control further damage,” said Zamirul Islam, Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Moheskhali upazila.
“We conduct regular drives to stop the illegal extraction of mollusks,” 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.
The project will also initiate research and implement conservation measures for coral and develop a waste management system on the island. It is scheduled to be completed by June 2020.
Banner photo: Shamsul Alam and his daughter harvest mollusks at the Sonadia Channel in Moheshkhali on May 15 / Credit: Shamsuddin Illius/TBS
This is an updated version of a story that originally appeared in the Business Standard on Sept. 6, 2019.