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Bangladesh’s proposed deep-sea port at Sonadia Island

Source: Zahirul Islam, Marinelife Alliance‎

Photos: Zahirul Islam, Marinelife Alliance‎

 Bangladesh’s proposed deep-sea port at Sonadia Island:
Another alarm bell rings in South Asia 

by Zahirul Islam, MarineLife Alliance

The Bangladesh Government is considering to establish a deep water sea-port at ‎Sonadia Island, in Cox’s Bazar, a biodiversity hotspot that is currently free from ‎anthropogenic impacts such as development and tourism. Its pristine sandy beach, mudflats, nearshore sandbars, high dunes and mangrove formations are unique – ‎serving as an important habitat for endangered sea turtles and wintering ‎shorebirds.

Lying within the East Asian - Australasian Flyway, Sonadia is used by ‎migratory birds as a stopover during their long migration further south. In January ‎‎2009, in the area where the deep-sea port has been proposed, we counted eight ‎individuals of Spoonbill sandpiper – one of the rarest migratory birds in the world, ‎with a population of just 300-350 pairs in the wild (Zöckler, 2006). Sonadia is ‎considered ecologically important by the government and in 1999 was declared as ‎an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) under Environmental Act of 1995. ‎

Deep Sea Port's plan

A Japanese consultancy firm named Pacific Consultant International (PCI) ‎conducted a feasibility survey for the construction of the deep-water seaport. The ‎proposed port would have 58 jetties, with a total length of 11 kilometers. The plan ‎is to build the port in three phases, with an expenditure of US $8.6  billion. The ‎Bangladesh government will seek project funding from international donors. The ‎first phase would be completed by 2016 and the full development finished by ‎‎2055. ‎

If constructed, the port would drastically change the habitats important for sea ‎turtles, shorebirds and cetaceans, but it would also threaten mangroves and ‎overall marine resources in an area where hundreds of thousands of community ‎people from the whole of Moheskhali, Kutubdia and even Chittagong depend for their daily livelihood. ‎According to some estimates, 700-800 fishing boats are engaged in fishing in Sonadia's nearshore and offshore waters, depending on the season.

PCI selected the Sonadia site in the Cox's Bazar district, with a ‎second suitable site option (of similar depth) about 20 km north at Kutubdia Island.  This alternative site is less important for ‎biodiversity as compared to Sonadia Island, and would leave a sufficient buffer zone.  Sonadia's selection is backed by people with financial motivations, ‎who appear not to have any environmental consciousness.  One has to question whether a full environmental assessment was even carried out during the feasibility study.

It is sad that none of the government ‎departments responsible for these issues, nor the international conservation ‎organisations in the country, have raised questions publically about the deep ‎seaport proposal. It is our request to all concerned people, scientists and environmentalists – nationally and internationally – to advocate and raise ‎these issues and try to convince the Bangladesh Government to relocate the ‎deep-sea port site away from this biodiversity hotspot.‎


Sonadia Island is a part of the Moheskhali upazila (district) located between ‎‎21°28'26.92"N 91°55'53.74"E and 21°32'49.47"N 91°50'38.45"E. Consisting of ‎gently sloping low-lying coast unprotected from the sea, Sonadia Island has ‎formed as a barrier island just south-west of Moheshkhali Island. Natural sandy ‎breakwaters face parallel to the flat coastlines of Moheshkhali. To the east a small ‎channel separates the two islands while to the southeast shallow bays separate it ‎by 3.5 km from the mainland Cox's Bazar. ‎

A sandy beach and ridge extends along the length of Sonadia Island from north-‎west to south-east. The dunes run along the entire coast and are also fringed ‎several hundred meters inward. They support dune-associated vegetation viz. ‎Ipmoea and Vitex. Large tracts of mangrove and salt marshes/mudflats dominate ‎the Island, though significant areas have been converted to ‎aquaculture and agriculture. Unspoiled sandy beaches and extensive shallow ‎sand bars provide important feeding, roosting and nesting grounds for birds and ‎turtles. To the north, Ghotivanga is characterised by large stretches of mangrove ‎and mudflats interspersed with canals and some sandy areas along the shoreline ‎facing the Moheshkhali Channel. ‎


An intertidal sandy beach and sandy ridge extends for approximately 12.5 km ‎along the length of the western side of Sonadia Island, from north-west to south ‎east. The beach is rich in mollusk shells. ‎Wind and waves are the major forces determining the features of the dunes. The ‎dunes are constantly changing location through the seasonal strong blowing ‎winds. The beaches and shallow shoals surrounding the site provide an excellent ‎staging area and wintering ground for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, and the ‎sand dunes provide nesting grounds for marine turtles. The sandy shore is the last ‎remaining habitat for numerous red crabs that still roam in the area. ‎

MUDFLATS: There are several mudflat areas rich in intertidal grassy ‎vegetation and mangrove growth. The total mudflat area was estimated at 1,175 ‎ha in 1999. The largest undisturbed salt marsh area is in south Sonadia Island; ‎other areas are along the mangrove formations north of Sonadia West village, ‎between Moheshkhali and Sonadia Islands, and along the mangrove formations of ‎Baradia-Vanga canal in Moheshkhali. The mudflats are an important habitat for ‎migratory and resident birds and numerous species of invertebrates.‎

MangroveMANGROVE: The site supports the last remnant of natural mangrove forest in ‎south-east Bangladesh. The mangroves have developed in a lagoonal coastal ‎setting and also deltaic formation, with salt-tolerant dominant species attributed to ‎the extreme ecological factors of high salt-content soil and water. The mangrove is ‎distributed at the sheltered inland part of Sonadia Island and a very narrow ‎intertidal area on the edge of the estuary, covering an area of 332 ha, and at ‎northern Ghotivanga, covering an area of 169 ha, giving a total mangrove area of ‎‎500 ha. The mangrove is dominated by the shrubby Aegialitis rotundifolia and ‎consists of seven tree species of Avicennia spp. and Aegialitis rotundifolia ‎which constitute the upper and lower stratum, attaining a maximum height of 3.6 and 2.4 ‎metres respectively. The mangroves provide an excellent wintering ground for ‎migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, and a nursing and feeding ground for fish and ‎shrimp species.‎

ESTUARINE AND NEAR-SHORE WATERS: The site’s near-‎shore waters consist of a number of channels separated by shallow sand bars. ‎Sonadia also has several mangrove-dominated estuarine canals and lagoons, ‎covering a total area of approx. 316 ha. The eastern part of the site is fed ‎by freshwater from the Bakkhali River estuary and Moheshkhali Channel, and the ‎western part of the site from the Kuhelia River. The near-shore waters ‎provide important habitat for breeding, growth and development of many inshore and nearshore fishes and invertebrate species of the north-eastern part of the ‎Bay of Bengal.‎


The site’s diverse habitats support three different vegetation types. The vegetation ‎of the sand dunes consists of 35 species of angiosperm, in particular Ipomea ‎pescapre, Vitex trifolia, Ziziphus mauritania, Clerodendrum inerme, Pandanus ‎odoratissimus and Calotropis gigantia. The sand dunes also support medicinal ‎plants such as nishinda and akondo. The salt marsh vegetation consists of ‎Porteresia coarctata and Myristichia wighthenia. The plant population of Porteresia ‎coarctata (Roxb) Tateoka at Sonadia Island, a wild grass relative of rice, is ‎internationally important for the development of salt-tolerant varieties of rice. It ‎represents the land race of the species, which is more tolerant of salinity than any ‎other land races along the central and western coasts of Bangladesh. Twenty ‎seven species of mangrove and mangrove-associated vegetation were recorded in ‎earlier surveys, with common species being Avicennia officinalis, Avicennia ‎marina, Avicennia alba, Sonneratia apetala, Aegicerus corniculatum, Ceriops ‎decandra and Aegialitis rotundifolia. The presence of Sonn eratia griffithii is ‎noteworthy, being once common in the mangroves of Bangladesh and no longer ‎found in any other area. A sea grass, Halophila becarrii, has also been recorded in ‎the vicinity of the island.‎


Terns gather on beach of Sonadia Island at Belekerdia, the water near will be used as ship channelBIRDS: About 70 species of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds visit the site for ‎resting, roosting, feeding and wintering, and as a staging ground during migration. ‎These include four bird species that are listed as globally threatened - the Spoon-‎billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus), Asian Dowitcher (Limnodromus ‎semipalmatus), Nordmann’s Greenshank (Tringa guttifer) and River Lapwing ‎‎(Vanellus duvaucelii). An annual waterfowl census is conducted mid-winter along ‎the East Asia Australasian flyway, including at two spots in Bangladesh within the ‎ECA (Sonadia Island and Ghotivanga). During surveys carried out every year ‎since 2005, the spoonbill sandpiper has been spotted by international and local ‎teams with an aggregation of shorebirds averaging forty thousand individuals ‎altogether in different mudflats in Sonadia and Moheskhali areas. ‎

REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS: Apart from sea turtles, the presence of two fresh-water turtles is ‎reported: the Bengal-eyed turtle (Morenia peterci) and the Indian flap shell turtle ‎‎(Lissemys puctata). Several small lizards are seasonally common including the ‎garden lizard (Calotes versicolor), common skink (Mabuya carinata), common ‎gecko (Gekko gecko) and house lizard (Hemidactylus brooki). Terrestrial snakes ‎are very rare but they include the yellow-bellied sea snake (Pelamis platurus) and ‎estuarine sea snake (Hydophis obscurus). ‎ Ten species of frogs and one species of toad were recorded on ‎Sonadia, including the bull frog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus), skipper frog (Euphlyctis ‎cyanophlyctis) and climber frog (Kaloula pulchra).‎

‎FISH:   Previous surveys of the Moheshkhali Channel found 79 species of fish, ‎including 78 bony fish species. Common juvenile ‎and mature fish species using the area as a nursing ground include tade mullet ‎‎(Liza tade), Speigler's mullet (Valamugil speigleri), flathead mullet (Mugil ‎cephalus), Croakers (Sciaenidae), Engraulids (Coilia dussumieri, Thryssa ‎hamiltoni), silver grunt (Pomadasys argenteus), yellowfin seabream ‎‎(Acanthopagrus latus), gizzard shad (Anadonstoma chakunda), four-finger ‎threadfin (Eleutheronema tetradactylum), whiting (Sillago sihama) and eel catfish ‎‎(Plotosus canius). There is a lack of information on the fish fauna of the area. ‎Surveys need to be conducted to obtain up-to-date information on the present ‎status of fish biodiversity and stock size, seasonal abundance and dependent ‎populations/communities.‎

Red crabsINVERTEBRATES: The site is very rich in mollusks and crustaceans. Mollusk ‎species belonging to 14 genera of bivalves, clams, mussels and oysters are ‎known to occur at the site (Anon., 1990). Crustaceans include various species of ‎portunid crabs (Mud Crab, Scylla sp. and Blue Swimmer Crab, Portunus pelgicus). ‎Of particular importance is the Indian Horseshoe Crab or King Crab ‎‎(Carcinoscorpinus rotundicauda), which is considered a living fossil and is listed as a threatened species. Nineteen species ‎of peneaid, solenocerid, sergestid and careidean prawn species have been ‎recorded in a number of surveys of the Moheshkhali channel. ‎

  The canals and near shore and offshore areas of Sonadia Island ‎support at least four  species of globally threatened coastal and marine ‎cetaceans, including Finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides), ‎Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops ‎aduncus) and Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis). All are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Another three cetacean species recorded in an upper Bay of ‎Bengal survey conducted in 2004 may also exist around the island. Cetaceans ‎have been recorded at the Vanga Canal (northern boundary of the Sonadia Island ‎ECA), at the estuary and upstream of the major canal between Moheshkhali and ‎Sonadia Islands (Bara Dhar). Cetacean species diversity may be greater than ‎recorded so far. ‎

Olive Ridley turtle returns after nesting. Photo: c/o Samiul Mohsanin / Zahirul IslamSEA TURTLES:  Last but not least, the threatened Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys ‎olivacea) and Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nest at Sonadia Island. The nesting ‎site is considered unique in Bangladesh in view of the fact that the beach is ‎pristine, free from tourism and other impacts. The annual nesting there and on ‎adjacent broken beaches to the north is nearly 250 per year from both species. ‎Ongoing conservation activities with community participation are conducted by ‎Marinelife Alliance and the Department of Environment. ‎

‎* * * * *‎ 

Olive Ridley trackThe contrast facing Bangladesh’s decision-makers could not be more stark: ‎Sonadia can be protected as a sanctuary with the help of community people, ‎whereas a deep sea port will ruin forever any possibility to preserve this wonderful ‎natural habitat. A deep sea port at Sonadia Island would destroy the habitat not ‎only of sea turtles, but also shorebirds and other biodiversity related to coastal ‎wetland and marine systems.

We are not against the development of infrastructure that will support Bangladesh's economy.  But we urge people of Bangladesh and the international ‎community to take notice of what is at stake, and to voice concerns to those ‎empowered to decide on this project – particularly, to ask why a major ‎development is planned in such a remarkable, relatively unspoiled environment ‎when a suitable alternative exists just 20 km away.‎


UNEP © IOSEA Marine Turtle MoU Secretariat, c/o UNEP Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific,
United Nations Building, Rajdamnern Nok Avenue, Bangkok, 10200, Thailand
Tel: + (662) 288 1471 ; Fax: + (662) 288 3041 / 288 1029; E-mail: IOSEA Secretariat
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