Biophysical Coral Reef Monitoring in Selected Lakshadweep Islands

Geographical location:

Asia/Pacific > Southern Asia > India

Summary

The project aims at setting up a baseline for coral reef monitoring by generating data sets, and by drawing on previous coral reef studies and reef assessments. It further involves setting up a database at Indira Gandhi Conservation Monitoring Centre (IGCMC), WWF India and institutionalisation of coral reef monitoring mechanism.

Background

On account of Lakshadweep Islands' isolation, fragility, and extreme vulnerability to environmental deterioration, the biodiversity of islands are threatened. The effects of climate change, global, warming and sea-level rise have disastrous consequences on islands, particularly small islands that are low and flat, like the Lakshadweep islands.

Global warming: Natural phenomena like the EI Nino effect also take their toll on the islands by causing mass bleaching of corals, as was reported in May 1998. Much of the living coral cover around Lakshadweep was destroyed in the 1998 bleaching event, with estimates ranging form 43% to 87% loss of live coral cover. Cover declined markedly to about 10% live coral in Kadmat Island.

In 1998 prolonged increases in sea surface temperatures devastated reefs, leading to upwards of 70 percent and sometimes more than 90 percent coral death across vast stretches of the hotspot. Global climate change continues to pose a threat, as do coral mining, over-fishing and ornamental fish collection.

Prognosis for Protection: Prior to 1998, Northern Indian Ocean hotspot boasted some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world. As global warming continues and sea levels rise, small island states are at risk of disappearing. This hotspot is adjacent to the Western Ghats, India and Sri Lanka terrestrial biodiversity hotspot. Measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change are needed to accompany initiatives to protect reefs already underway throughout the hotspot.

While the total population of the islands is low, Lakshadweep is one of the most densely populated territories in Indian (2000 per sq. km. in 1991 census). Another anthropogenic pressure on the islands and lagoons are high with demands with housing material and food, apart from the requirements of the coconut and fisheries based economy. Domestic waste and the waste products of the coconut industry are serious threat to the land, the lagoons and the sea.

Illegal collection of sea birds and their eggs from the Tern Sanctuary, Pitti Island is depleting the once abundant bird population. Though local fisher folk have always been collecting eggs from Pitti for their own consumption as well as for limited sale, this activity has now become unsustainable, because of additional demands of the burgeoning population.

Coral reefs and lagoons are the most threatened on account of pollution from the land and from the sea, over-collection of fishes - particularly bait fishes, corals and shells, coral mining, dredging of the lagoons leading to further problems of coastal erosion. Erosion takes place on account of natural causes like wave action as well as due to destruction of coral reefs. While cement tetrapods are effective for controlling erosion, they prevent marine turtles from coming ashore to lay their eggs.

Tourism is an important source of income for the Islands' population and Lakshadweep is becoming increasingly popular with both domestic and foreign tourists. Unless their numbers and their activities are carefully monitored and controlled, there is a threat to the ecology of the islands. Carelessness by tourists can disturb bird breeding colonies, damage corals while reef walking, or cause pollution because of garbage and sewage waste.

Passenger and cargo ships dumping untreated waste into the sea around the islands and discharging waste oil cause severe pollution. Lakshadweep falls along the main route for oil tankers plying between the Middle East and South/South-east Asia. Any oil spillage is a serious potential threat for marine biodiversity. The effect of oil on corals, sea grasses, lagoons fauna and other marine resources has not yet been adequately studied.

In Lakshadweep Islands, crown-of-thorns starfish were first noticed at Agatti Island in 1977 and have spread to most islands and reefs causing loss of corals. Black and white band diseases and pink band diseases and pink band disease have been observed in shallow coral areas, but bleaching has been the main cause of loss in reef biodiversity. There is some coral mining, dredging of navigational channels, unsustainable fishing practices, coastal development, and souvenir collection. Blasting and dredging of corals to create navigational channels has been reported. There are reports of decline in fish catches within the reef lagoons, which could be due to the loss of live corals after the bleaching event, or to increased harvesting due to population pressures, which has trebled in the last 20 years. The methods used to catch live bait for tuna fishing cause damage to the reefs and reductions in live bait stocks have impacted on the local economy since the tuna fishery is the major industry in the islands.

Sea erosion of the islands' shoreline is aggravated by the removal of coral boulders for use in building materials and cement industry.

*** Background information on WWF-India work related to Lakshadweep Islands ***

WWF-India has been involved since mid nineties (1995) especially with the conservation & management of MPAs in India. WWF-India contributed to "Planning a global representative system of MPAs" in Central Indian Ocean. This exercise resulted in identification of Lakshadweep Islands, besides others as priority area for establishing MPAs.

The Biodiversity Conservation Prioritisation Project implemented by WWF-India during 1996-99, prioritised 5 sites namely Kalpeni Island, Kadmat Island, Suheli, Pitti Island and Minicoy using 11 parameters and secondary data analysis and following consultations with the experts.

In year 2000, WWF identified Lakshadweep (as part of the its global priority setting exercise) as a global marine ecoregion and is part of the marine ecoregion: Maldives, Chagos, Lakshadweep Atolls - Chagos Archipelago (United Kingdom), India, Maldives, Sri Lanka.

Objectives

* Set up a baseline for coral reef monitoring by generating data sets, and by drawing on previous coral reef studies and reef assessments.

* Inventory of corals/associated reef biota based on available literature and generation of new data sets.

* Set up a Database at Indira Gandhi Conservation Monitoring Centre of WWF-India (an ENVIS Centre on NGOs, Media and Parliament), in public domain eventually linking it with the MOEF's Indian Coral Reef Monitoring Network (ICRMN).

* Institutionalisation of coral reef monitoring mechanism.

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