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This Mumbai NGO has found a way to regrow the dying coral reefs off India’s coasts

  • Published at 05:12 pm September 29th, 2019
coral
Photo: Patrick Hendry

Ancient and diverse ecosystems, coral reefs occupy less than 1 per cent of the ocean floor, but are home to nearly a quarter of all known marine species in the world

With warming oceans, the coral reefs that dot the Indian coasts, and feed millions who depend on them, are dying. Experts hope that they can turn the tide against climate change by “restoring and rehabilitating” the reefs, but systemic issues remain.

A Mumbai-based NGO, ReefWatch India, has taken up two projects --Re(ef)Build and Re(ef)Grow - to conserve the reefs. Nayantara Jain, executive director of the project, told News18 that the two projects, together called ‘Reef Genre’, haven’t been done before in India, but have been tried in other parts of the world.

Re(ef)build involves the restoring and rehabilitation of coral reefs at the Andamans by rescuing naturally broken coral fragments that would otherwise get smothered in the sand and die, and re-attaching them to a robust substratum (like a metal structure).

This increases the survival rate and in time leads to the creating of artificial coral reefs. The next step is to add mineral accretion technology to the artificial structures. Small doses of electricity will be generated through a solar source and passed through the iron framework, triggering a process similar to that of electrolysis. Minerals, primarily calcium carbonate, would then get deposited on the structure.

The process, that can help reefs grow 7-12 times faster, has been used by scientists to regenerate locally extinct reefs, including Pemuteran in Indonesia.

With the second part of the project, Re(ef) Grow, the organization intends to encourage natural coral spawning in the Andaman Islands. Spawning is a natural process of sexual reproduction in corals and often mass spawning events occur where multiple colonies of multiple species all spawn on the same night.

These mass spawning events take place once or twice a year, on a specific night, usually on a full moon. “Understanding the timing and intensity of coral spawning in an area provides us with important indicators of reef health and resilience,” the NGO, which has been funded by the Habitats Trust Grant said.

Jain added that they had made several tweaks to the project to better suit it for Indian conditions, “as per the infrastructure, material and marine life, we have here.”

“We are able to make certain tweaks and create a model in India. We are hopeful of replicating the project in other parts of the country. Our aim is to take it to other islands where there is increased tourism and more pressure. We are also working on creating a detailed manual on how reef managers and conservation practitioners across India can go about implementing the same. That’s the long-term vision of the project,” she said.

Ancient and diverse ecosystems, coral reefs occupy less than one per cent of the ocean floor, but are home to nearly a quarter of all known marine species in the world. In India, reefs are restricted to four major centres - Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar, Lakshadweep Islands and Andaman and Nicobar Islands - and each one of them is threatened by climate change and human activities.

The ways in which coral reefs impact human lives are many. Take for instance, the fact that reefs make the “sand white in colour, instead of the usual brown or red”, points out Jain.

“Coral reefs are home to many fish species that are eaten by a lot of people globally. A lot many commercial fishes are found on coral reefs. And, coral reefs support the fisheries in many of the tropical countries of the world,” she said, adding that they are also tourist hotspots for activities such as scuba diving or snorkelling.

Apart from this, they also provide “ecological services from water filtration and shoreline protection to providing barriers to vulnerable island nations and to protecting coastlines from tropical storms,” she added.

Reefs are the source of nitrogen and other essential nutrients for marine food chains and also the fishing industry effectively depends on them as many fish spawn and juvenile fish will spend time in the reefs before heading to open sea.

Asked about climate change and its impact on the reefs, she added, “Yes, coral reefs are the most vulnerable victim of climate change, in my view. Suddenly over a couple of months, I have got to know that these reefs are dying owing to the rise in the sea temperature and climate change. I have seen the vibrant reefs to completely bleach over the course of a few months. That’s what drove my interest into studying the marine biology with the aim of doing something about it.”

Key to the work that ReefWatch has been doing is to make people aware of the wonders of coral reefs “by taking them underwater”.

“We let them experience underwater diving, skiing to make them aware of the importance of the reefs and the marine ecosystem….most of the people don’t know much about the coral reefs. They are unaware of the fact that they cover less than one percent of the ocean surface and yet are the home of one-third of the marine life.”

But although the reefs in India have been documented since 1847, and its importance well understood and often reiterated by the Planning Commission, the protection for reefs remains scant. Jain explained that apart from the “global threat of climate change”, they are also subjected to the “local level risk factor”.

She said, “If we are able to control the local level threat, then coral reefs would be able to respond better and have some resilience against the global level threat. For instance, overfishing is a local level threat that can be managed or controlled. Unsustainable fishing practices like dynamite fishing and removal of predators like shark also cause a lot of damage to the reefs. Other local level factors that have been identified include damage caused by wrong tourism practices and others.”

While marine protected areas has proved to be a significant strategy, it can’t be the only strategy, Jain said. “Beyond a point, an area cannot be restricted as it has very limited scope to grow. It cannot be the only conservation strategy. It has to be linked with how we can use the economic growth like increased tourism to increase the scope of the conservation processes. Involving local community can be a more inclusive conservation tool rather than creating a marine protected area.”

She added, “Also, we have to continuously monitor the protected areas like elephant sanctuaries. However, in case of the marine protected areas, no monitoring is done owing to the low capacity of managing the marine area. Hence, it is extremely important to have strong practices of monitoring the protected areas rather than setting up more marine protected areas. This would help us judge whether the conservation processes are helping.”

This story originally appeared in News18. It is republished here as part of Dhaka Tribune's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.