The Environment Conservation Act prohibits the extraction and sale of snails and oysters, but the district administration of Cox's Bazar is permitting the illegal trade thriving on the beach.
The oyster market on the world's longest natural sea beach thrives day and night. The bustling trade at over 500 shops is done with the permission of the district deputy commissioner who is also the head of the Beach Management Committee.
Ornaments and other products made of shells of protected snails, oysters and corals are being sold unabated at the market.
People of the district allege that the country's biodiversity is being sacrificed by those responsible for safeguarding it, in exchange for just several lakhs of taka annually, and in the name of assisting the poor.
They said Section 6 of Schedule 2 under the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, 2012, bans hunting and sale of 32 coral species and 137 snail and oyster species. But neither the administration nor the traders are abiding by the act.
Oceanographers say if people want to protect the sea and the coast, they must unite to protect them. Otherwise, the beach may lose its unique characteristics.
The administration, however, itself, has legitimised the illegal activity as the tourism and protocol branch of district administration has approved the sale of these snails, oysters and corals at more than 500 shops.
As the chairman of the beach management committee, the Cox's Bazar deputy commissioner (DC) is approving the shops selling these snails and oysters.
It is learned that the tourism and protocol branch has issued approval cards for 264 oyster shops at Sugandha Point and 202 at Labani Point of Cox's Bazar beach. In addition, products made of snails and oysters are being sold without approval cards at over 100 shops.
Sources concerned said snails and oysters are found in the sea all the year round. During winter and when the sea is rough, large and valuable snails and oysters become more available. As a result, demand and sales increase during winter.
Environmental groups in the district have expressed their concern over the silence of the Department of Environment, or authorities concerned, in stopping or controlling the district administration's illegal approval of snail and oyster trade that violates environmental laws.
However, due to environmental catastrophes Sonadia and St Martin's Island in Cox's Bazar – caused by various reasons including the indiscriminate extraction of snails and oysters – collection of natural biodiversity in those areas was banned by the Environment Act a decade-and-a-half ago, declaring the areas as Environmentally Critical Areas (ECA).
Environmental organisations said the Department of Environment has gone into hibernation since enacting the law, although about 80% of snails and oysters of the beach have lost their habitat due to indiscriminate collection.
ANM Moazzem Hossain, chairman of voluntary environmental organisation Save the Nature of Bangladesh, has raised questions over the illegal trade in his verified Facebook ID.
He said, "Snails, oysters, and corals are being sold openly at hundreds of shops in Cox's Bazar, Teknaf and St Martin. Most of the shops are selling them after collecting them live from the deep sea and under the ground."
He further alleged that the authorities concerned of the government, instead of coming forward to protect the biodiversity seeing these, approved the sales.
"Is it not a violation of law to provide licenses to sell corals and snails of the beach, after killing them?" he said.
He warned of announcing a strict programme, if the illegal oyster and snail shops are not closed immediately and their licenses revoked.
Dhaka University Oceanography Department Chairman Dr Kauser Ahmed said it is not clear why the district administration had approved shops to sell snails and oysters, which is banned under the Environment Act.
"We only consider it a crime to catch these animals, but we do not notice that they are not only being caught, they are being sold publicly," he observed.
He said if we do not protect the sea and the coast, the longest natural beach in the world will soon lose its unique characteristics.
Abdur Rahim, a shopkeeper at Cox's Bazar oyster market, said wholesalers claim that most of the snails and oysters sold were imported from abroad.
He said, "Although live snails and oysters are rarely sold at the beach at present, it cannot be denied that they are being sold after being collected from the sea."
He declined to comment on the issue of district administration permitting the sale.
Contacted, Deputy Director of district Environment Department Sheikh Nazmul Huda said district administration is not supposed to approve the sale of these banned wild animals. It is not clear on what grounds the district administration is giving the approval. Only they themselves can say why the permission is being given.
He said, "If the shopkeepers collect and sell these snails and oysters, they definitely should be brought under the law," he added.
Through this correspondent, he requested the people of Cox's Bazar to immediately inform the environment department if they have any information about such incidents.
In this regard, Cox's Bazar Development Authority (CDA) Chairman Lt Colonel Forkan Ahmed said not only oyster and snail shops, but all the shops on Cox's Bazar beach are illegal.
"I do not understand under which law the district administration has licensed these shops. It is known to all who got trading licenses on the beach in the name of being poor," he said.
Observing that a clash between the two government institutions would erupt if he rushes to shut the shops, he said, "I am slowly moving towards eviction of these installations."
"Illegal beach installations must be dismantled," he said.
Meanwhile, Executive Magistrate and Assistant Commissioner of Tourism and Protocol Branch of district administration Syed Murad Islam said the district administration has approved more than 500 oyster and snail shops on the beach.
He also attested the allegation of locals that the country's biodiversity is being compromised in exchange for a small amount of money.
He said, "Annual fees are collected from these shops. A fee of Tk6,000 against each shop is collected from Laboni Point and Kalatali shops and Tk18,000-Tk 20,000 from Sugandha Point," he added.
In reply to a query if Cox's Bazar district administration can legalise the sale of snails and oysters banned under the Environment Act, he said, "The Department of Environment and my senior officials can speak well in this regard."
He, however, said that these shops have been approved on the basis of requests "to help financially indigent shopkeepers."
Cox's Bazar deputy commissioner and President of Beach Management Committee Md Kamal Hossain could not be reached despite several attempts over the phone as did not receive the calls.
A text message sent to the DC mentioning the issue also remained unanswered.