Janaka Perera explores troubled waters where coral reef destruction is rife

Legislation to protect marine organisms was introduced in Sri Lanka over a century ago. One example is the Chanks Ordinance of 1880 meant to control the collection and export of chanks from the Gulf of Mannar and around the Jaffna Peninsula.

Sri Lanka’s coastal waters are home to 180 species of fish, five species of marine turtles that nest on beaches along the coast and 30 species of marine mammals including endangered species. The denuding of forests in upstream catchment areas causes erosion – unusually large amounts of soil enter rivers and exit through estuaries into the sea eventually. Being living organisms, corals are suffocated by the sediment that settles on them – and they die. Moreover, coral destruction causes the loss of habitat and sources of food for fish.

Coral reefs are vital for our economy. They represent the most biodiverse and productive ecosystem on Earth, occupying only two percent of the ocean yet being home to a quarter of all marine species. More than 4,000 species of fish make coral reefs their home. Corals can only exist within a narrow band of environmental conditions found in tropical and subtropical waters.

The conditions needed for coral survival are found in the seas surrounding Sri Lanka. Yet, the environmental authorities have failed to arrest the destruction of coral reefs in tourist resorts such as Hikkaduwa.

In 2010, the International Business Times ranked Sri Lanka the fifth largest plastic polluter of the ocean with 1.6 million metric tons of plastic or polythene dumped into the sea every year.

Plastic debris is fast becoming the greatest threat to oceans. Marine wildlife species are severely affected as they ingest plastic or are strangled by it. Strangulation by fishing lines and plastic packaging is also a common cause of death among marine animals.

As plastic is not biodegradable, it remains in marine environments for centuries, fragmenting into smaller pieces that accumulate on the sea floor, blocking the exchange of gases and impairing ecosystems. Or plastic detritus travels through the food chain, ultimately ending up in seafood destined for human consumption.

While plastic is the chief contaminant, sewage released into the seas surrounding our isle adds to the pollution. Colombo’s sewage system is probably over 100 years old and the capacity for which it was installed is presently inadequate to counter oceanic pollution. And slum settlements are found around canals, waterways and the seashore. In such locales, land is limited and waste is discarded in the easiest way – into the closest body of water.

National Geographic’s April 2017 edition carries a satellite image showing polluted waters around Sri Lanka. This graphic and irrefutable evidence indicates a possible environmental disaster for the island’s coral reefs.

According to Dr. Stephanie Wear, Senior Scientist and Strategy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy, pollution from untreated sewage is a serious threat to reefs, and the benefits they offer marine life and people.

If this trend is allowed to continue, the consequences might be similar to the fate of beaches in Saint Petersburg in Russia where the Federal Security Service announced in 2008 that no beach was fit for swimming. In 2011, its city council voted to close one of the city’s four sewage plants.

Pollution destroys the recreational value of beaches, which are also a foreign exchange earner. The effect can already be seen in the popular tourist beaches of Mount Lavinia and Negombo. The loss of biodiversity and habitat degradation caused by plastic pollution will affect these popular townships, which generate revenue and employment from tourism.

Meanwhile, coral mining in the sea to produce lime for the construction industry has destroyed most of the fringing reefs along Sri Lanka’s southwestern coast.

The Indian Ocean region in general and Sri Lanka in particular face several environmental problems, which affect the sustainable utilisation of available resources. There have been many claims of overfishing certain species. To date, there’s been little or no bio economic modelling to compute the maximum sustainable yields of critical fish species.

As the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) has stated, Sri Lanka does not have reliable data on the extent of the country’s fisheries resources under threat of overfishing.

There have also been many recent issues related to the sharing of fisheries resources with neighbouring countries – such as the intrusion of Indian fishing trawlers in Sri Lankan waters.

Such issues related to the ocean environment are complex and interrelated. There is no single action that can provide solutions to the multiplicity of problems relating to oceanic resources.

Action has to be taken at sectoral, national, regional and global levels. At the national level, it is important to identify resource gaps in seeking solutions.