Private sector push to prevent marine catastrophe

A pioneering private sector initiative to safeguard our marine and coastal environment that just got underway is what could be a last-ditch effort to save environmental, tourism and fisheries assets that make the island an attractive tourist and investment destination.

By Echelon.

Published on February 12, 2014 with No Comments

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Dr P B Terney Pradeep Kumara, a scientist with the Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology at the Ruhuna University, recalls how he once encountered a man cutting sea grasses at Kapparathota in Weligama Bay. Sea grasses are flowering plants growing underwater in lagoons and bays and are the breeding grounds and habitat for a variety of marine life – a kind of cradle where marine creatures start their life.
His inquiries revealed that some hotel managements in the area were in the habit of cutting the sea grass to make it easier for tourists to swim. “I spoke to the management of the hotel and stopped it,” recalled Pradeep Kumara. “But when I returned after a week I found the whole area cleaned up of sea grass.”
The problem’s worse in other areas. Navy officers say the north-western coast from Devil’s Point to Pooneryn is thick with sea grass sedimentation – the debris that results from the use of bottom trawling nets – a banned technique – by Indian poachers.
These are just two examples of the catastrophic destruction of the marine and coastal environment around the island that is taking place – bit by bit, year after year. The damage is so serious that the private sector is now getting involved in trying to enforce the regulations and ensure conservation. The plethora of laws and regulations and a multitude of state agencies charged with protecting natural resources have failed to do their job.
marine2Much is at stake, especially for the private sector, which has a vested interest in marine conservation as these resources and assets are of crucial commercial value to them, given the big investments being made in a range of sectors, from tourism to fisheries and offshore petroleum.
Srilal Miththapala, past president of the Tourist Hotels Association, says a big chunk of the increased room capacity being built to cater to the increasing numbers of tourists will be on the coast, hence the need to protect it.
“There are 9,000 rooms in the pipeline of which 35% will be on the coast – so it’s important to protect it,” he told a recent forum on marine conservation that brought together specialists and interested parties to assess the current status of marine conservation and the environment, promote awareness of conservation and strengthen enforcement. “The infrastructure is being built at a very rapid pace and therefore we must be mindful of what we are doing to the environment.”
Most of the larger tourism developers are taking cognisance of environmental protection, which has virtually become a way of life for them, Miththapala notes. “It’s not only good ethical practice but a good marketing tool, because today many of the tourists coming to Sri Lanka are concerned about conservation. There is a market for tourists who are willing to pay a slightly higher premium to stay in such places.”
Miththapala warns that the tourism sector should avoid going the way of the garment industry which began and thrived as sweatshops but shrank as the market changed and ‘ethical’ manufacturing and environmental conservation became important to buyers and consumers.
“Today there are not more than 150 garment factories,” he says. “The others have all fallen by the wayside. Only those who can look after the environment survive. Firms like Brandix and MAS focus hugely on the environment. Tourism also has to do that. We always have had health and safety inspectors. Now we have environmental inspectors coming to see what we’re doing to the water, the beach and waste. If we don’t change we might also go the way the garment industry went.”
The hotels association, which represents 154 hotels of the 200-odd hotels, plans to set up clusters of their members to monitor, record and do capacity building in support of conservation.
Dr Hiran Jayewardene, a Cambridge-educated international lawyer specialising in maritime affairs, has watched the slow-motion marine catastrophe for decades. He was the live-wire behind the forum which saw the participation of business chambers and government conservation and environmental protection bodies, universities, and the navy and coast guard.
“I see a failure of government institutions,” he declared, recalling the practical difficulties he ran into during the past three decades when he was in and out of government service, having done two stints as head of the National Aquatic Resources Agency. “They are unable to fulfil their role. They are not as effective as they should be. There are lots of constraints in the government that prevent us from getting ahead. So we looked at the private sector where we know there is good management.”
The envisioned partnership is a logical alternative approach to conservation that exploits private sector skills and makes up for inadequacies in the public sector to ensure more effective management and protection of natural resources. Corruption and political interference in the enforcement of regulations hamper conservation efforts, especially at the local level. “There are politicians involved, unfortunately,” says Jayewardene, who also heads IOMAC (Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation), an organisation fostering co-operation among countries in the region.
Law enforcement has deteriorated to such an extent that scientists like Dr Pradeep Kumara say they prefer to have the protection of the military when they make field visits for monitoring and data collection. “Strengthening the coast guard and navy would help. If we go with government officers we face problems from politicians and thugs. But if we go with the navy we have some protection.”
The navy, which spends more time at sea than anyone else, is well-positioned to enforce regulations and support conservation.
“We can have legislation but who would enforce the law?” asks Navy Commander Vice Admiral Jayanath Colombage, who spent eight of his 35 years of naval service totally at sea. “The ocean is our domain. And when not at sea, we are at the coast, where the ocean meets land. We collect data and we report things. We observe the change most of all. We’re losing the coast gradually.” Examples of navy support for research include river plume and marine mammal observation.
“We have a huge problem in the northern, north-eastern and north-western coasts with Indian poaching,” Colombage says. “They use very destructive methods of fishing such as bottom trawling which scrapes the bottom, destroying coral and fish. Of the harvest, 35% is by-catch which is of no use. If we allow this to continue we will lose our livelihoods and it will have an impact on the economy.”
Lagoons and estuaries on the coastal belt where the mixing of saline and fresh water linked to the rainy seasons create a unique environment for marine life are being destroyed.
“If the lagoon mouth is damaged, the eco-system shifts to a high or low salinity scenario which affects marine life,” explains Professor Tilak Gamage of the Faculty of Marine Sciences at the Ruhuna University.
This has been highlighted with dramatic effect at Koggala lagoon where the sand bar at the lagoon mouth which regulates the water flow was breached following excavation exceeding permitted levels. The lagoon mouth is now open to sea throughout the year and salinity levels have risen drastically changing the dispersion of mangroves and distribution of species. As a result the mud crab population is diminishing. Many of the 86 lagoons have similarly been mishandled, disturbing the exchange of water with the sea, causing fisheries to decline. “Most problems are caused by poor decision-making,” says Professor Gamage. “There’s a need to give priority to ecological values.”
marine3In Hikkaduwa, whose coral gardens made it a tourist draw, live coral coverage is only about 10%, despite the reef being declared a marine sanctuary and decades of warnings of damage caused by tourist boats. Even today lots of glass-bottom boats that take tourists lie on the reef at low tide damaging the coral. Reefs further down the south coast are being “massacred” by human activity, says Dr Pradeep Kumara. In Weligama, some 50-60 boats anchor on the living reef, destroying corals.
Among the most pernicious practices employed by fisher-folk is dynamiting to stun fish, a practice long-banned which continues. “The blast kills everything – fish and larvae in a one-kilometre radius,” he says. Ornamental fish collectors pose another threat, using certain types of nets that are banned.
The first good reef in the north is at Pigeon Island with reef cover almost 60-70% north of Trincomalee. But even that’s threatened with hordes of visitors after the end of the war trampling and breaking the coral. The unregulated, careless passage of boats causes more damage – photographs taken by scientists show long white swathes in the reef where boat propellers cut the coral. Although the navy is deployed, there aren’t enough personnel to monitor tourist activity on the whole island. The reef’s in danger unless urgent action is taken to restrict and better regulate access. The seaward side of Pigeon Island is being destroyed but the other side is flourishing because the Wildlife Department is not allowing people to go there.
“This happens mainly because of lack of awareness,” Dr Pradeep Kumara notes, calling for far more vigorous efforts to educate the public, “not just adults but from the kindergarten level.” He suggests identifying home reefs at beach resorts and asking hoteliers and village groups to help manage them.
On the west coast around Kalpitiya is the island’s largest coral cover, extending from Puttalam to Talaimannar. At Bar Reef, a 306-square mile area was declared a marine sanctuary as far back as 1992, but unfortunately there’s still no marine management action.
Bar Reef, which for long was off-limits owing to the war but now draws hordes of visitors, faces one of the most immediate threats. “The reef is getting destroyed by boat anchors,” warns Howard Martenstyn, Director of Research at CRIOMM (Centre for Indian Ocean Research on Marine Mammals). “Until mooring buoys are installed at the Bar Reef marine sanctuary any boats going there should be banned if you want to save it. That’s a basic thing which happens everywhere. It must be done as soon as possible. The season has just started – boats have started to go there. Each time an anchor is dropped coral gets destroyed.” Hotels in the area have offered to fund the buoys, so it would cost the government nothing. What’s required is quick regulatory action. Dr Mahesh Jayaweera of Moratuwa University who has done test oil spills along the west coast to assess the risk from shipping, says Kalpitiya is a very fragile area. “Big plans for tourism have been announced but have enough studies been done before we declare it a tourism area? Will the Bar Reef coral cover and the lagoon eco-system be safe once tourism comes?”
He’s so worried that tourist infrastructure built in the area could block nutrient sediment movements to and fro which are vital to support marine life that he suggests not allowing even building on stilts.
The lack of strong ocean currents in the area enhance risks from accidental spills with oil exploration underway in the Gulf of Mannar. “In that area dispersion is very minimal,” says Dr Jayaweera. “If something goes wrong, the oil won’t go very far – it tends to remain. And if it does not evaporate but stays it can cause more damage.”
At least 200 merchant ships sail past the island each day just off the coast raising the risk of oil spills from accidents, surreptitious discharge by passing vessels or dumping of toxic waste. Artificial spills done by a team from Moratuwa University to model the effects of an oil spill on behalf of the Marine Environmental Protection Agency revealed the risks to some of the best beaches on the west coast from Colombo North to just beyond Hambantota. Much depends on the monsoons, the risks mainly being during the south-west monsoon.
“During June-July, from Colombo to Galle if there’s a spill the coast would be hit,” Dr Jayaweera says.”We get south-west monsoon winds towards Colombo and the western shore. But during the off-season, the wind takes the oil offshore.”
His team estimated the probability of an oil spill in the shipping lane 10-12 km offshore hitting the beach at Hikkaduwa at 24 hours. “So we have to be ready within 24 hours. The oil can hit a fairly wide area of shore.”
Just off Dondra, on the island’s southern tip, is one of the world’s busiest merchant shipping lanes where a vessel traffic separation scheme prevents collisions. There’s still no way to stop vessels colliding with migratory whales who directly cross their path when swimming in to feeding grounds in nearby Mirissa.
Shifting the shipping lanes which traverse the feeding grounds of whales further away from the shore is not practical, the animals being migratory creatures. Instead, other methods are being considered. These include imposing speed limits – getting ships to slow down in the area – and having observers on their bows to providing early warning of whales. “For me,” Jayewardene says, “it is a last-ditch effort to see if we can salvage something even at this late stage. These are our assets. We are quite capable of self-management. We don’t need to trouble any one. We’ve got the policy commitment – let’s do it.”

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