Asia-Pacific, Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-SRI LANKA: Saving the Island’s Remaining Coral Reefs

Amantha Perera

POLLHENA, Sri Lanka, May 28 2010 (IPS) - It is Saturday morning and the Pollhena beach, 160 kilometres south of the capital Colombo, is jampacked as usual with local and foreign tourists alike, who are either playing in the sand or bathing in its calm, shallow water, which is gleaming under the sunlight.

On the horizon, a couple of shadows appear to be walking on water, bending every now and then to pick up something that is not quite visible from afar. The figures are those of curious visitors walking on coral reefs, some 500 metres away from the shore, acting as bulwarks against turbulent waves. The visitors are collecting coral samples on the reef, which they will carry away as mementos of their joyous jaunt to Pollhena.

Walking on corals may not be too rampant among beach lovers as to turn the delicate organisms to dust under their feet. But it is one practice that has combined with many others to hasten the destruction of the reefs located around the island, according to experts.

In Hikkaduwa, about 60 km north of Pollhena, glass bottom boats with outboard engines travel back and forth from Sri Lanka’s most popular coral reef, carrying visitors who turn giddy at the sight of the corals. The boats swirl and turn over the reef and quickly head to shore. The ride to the reef takes less than three minutes and the ride back even lesser.

Watching this whole scenario unfold, environmental advocate Somadasa de Silva’s eyes narrow, the furrows on his forehead showing anger.

“They are destroying it – they are just destroying the reef,” the man, who has spent over three decades fighting for the conservation of the reef, told IPS as he stood on the shore. De Silva is an experienced diver and a conservationist who has made it his mission to save the reef.

He said unchecked exploitation of the reef is putting it under pressure in the limited areas where they are found in Sri Lanka. Reefs are spread over less than 2 percent or about 32 km of the island state’s total coastline of 1,580, according to the National Aquatic Resources, Research and Development Agency of Sri Lanka (NARA).

“Look at the boats – they travel at very high speeds over the reef, disturbing the marine ecosystem. When this is a regular occurrence, the damage is tremendous,” De Silva whined. Most of the boat hands are inexperienced and do not know how to handle a boat over the delicate reef, he added.

The boats also dump fuel and other harmful effluents on coral reefs. The practice goes unchecked, according to de Silva. Visitors to the reefs or even to the surrounding beaches have an unfortunate habit of taking pieces away, either as ornaments or souvenirs, he said.

In Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna Peninsula, police warn each bus that travels to the famous Naga Deepa temple – a Buddhist temple with a reef close by – not to take home any corals. “Please don’t buy these; don’t pick them up from the shore. You will have to leave them here,” officers warn busloads of tourists while pointing at nearby buckets filled with corals.

“The problem is that people are not aware of the value of reefs,” said Sumedha Kulatunga, manager of the Pollhena Reef Garden Hotel.

Coral reefs, also dubbed rainforests of the ocean, are known for their rich biodiversity and serve as breeding grounds of many fish species. The ‘Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008’ report stated that 19 percent of the world’s reefs are effectively lost while 20 percent are under threat of extinction in the next 20 to 40 years.

Research by NARA found that the major causes of damages to the reef were coral mining in the sea, destructive fishing and unbridled harvesting. De Silva said that wanton fishing using unsuitable nets and sometimes dynamites could only be regulated on reefs near the beach, not beyond.

The extent of coral destruction in Sri Lanka, according to NARA, is such that reefs as old as 5,000 years have been damaged, especially along the south- western coast of Sri Lanka, which is the most densely populated part of the country, since it is home to about two-thirds of the country’s population of 22 million.

De Silva, who regularly dives into the reef, expressed fears that as much as 50 percent of Hikkaaduwa’s original reefs may be under threat. “When you go there, you can see the destruction,” he said as he showed pictures of big empty patches on the reef.

“Its ecological value aside, the reefs saved the coastline during the (December 2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami from being pulverised,” Pollhena Reef Garden Hotel’s Kulatunga said. Hikkaduwa was hit, but not as hard, and many believe it was the reef that saved it from more harm, he said.

De Silva is lobbying for a national campaign to save Sri Lanka’s remaining coral reefs. One of his recommendations is the enforcement of tougher penalties for those who damage the reef and a total ban on coral mining.

“They (the reefs) take thousands of years to grow; we destroy them in decades, even less,” he said while watching with despair an all too familiar sight on the open sea from the Pollhena beach – of glass bottom boats bobbing up and down over the reef as passenger tourists marvel at the sight of one of nature’s wonders now in danger of extinction.

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