Archive for the ‘Marine Environment’ Category

Coral dance of death: Glowing, glowing, gone

March 22, 2020

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/200315/news/coral-dance-of-death-glowing-glowing-gone-396418.html published on SundayTimes on 15.03.2020.

Sri Lanka’s foremost coral expert, Arjan Rajasuriya, recently received a call from an excited diver friend. “I’ve just gone diving and found varieties of corals that I had never seen, glowing with fluorescent colours. They looked really beautiful,” the friend said.

But the news held no excitement for Mr. Rajasuriya, only sadness. “Look, those are not a new variety of coral: they are just dying corals performing the dance of death,” he explained to his friend.

Coral is created by tiny creatures called coral polyphs, whose hard exoskeletons become part of the coral. To obtain food, these polyps often build a harmonious symbiotic partnership with the zooxanthellae algae, which produce food through photosynthesis and become the corals’ food supplier and also their source of colour.

Increasing temperatures cause the algae to leave the polyps, leaving the latter without food and vulnerable to disease. The coral gradually goes white without the algae and dies – a process called coral bleaching.

Dying corals performing the dance of death

“During this process of coral bleaching some of the corals can appear much more colourful and brightly fluorescent. This is a spectacular sight – but it is only the dance of death of the corals,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.

As the sea surface temperature rises as a result of global warming, corals are at risk of dying everywhere and are the most threatened organisms on the planet, he added.

Coral bleaching is a serious problem in Sri Lanka with the live coral coverage of number of reefs having fallen to just 10-20 per cent of what they used to be. This is a worrying fact globally, with Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef, for example, losing more than half of its live coral coverage mainly due to bleaching.

In order to highlight the impact of global warming on fragile coral ecosystems, a global campaign was launched last week on World Wildlife Day, March 3, called “Glowing, glowing, gone”, displaying three new colours symbolising the hues that dying corals take on prior to bleaching.

The campaign was initiated by the United Nations Environment Programme and The Ocean Agency, an international NGO dedicated to marine conservation, partnered by graphic design giant Adobe and the colour design company, Pantone Colour Institute.

In a press release, Adobe described how corals produce brightly-coloured chemicals as a kind of sunscreen against fatally high water temperatures and sun exposure. “This glowing phenomenon, called coral fluorescence, is a final line of defence before the coral dies and bleaches to white. It’s been described as ‘a most beautiful death’,” Adobe said.

“Only a handful of people have ever witnessed the highly visual spectacle of corals ‘glowing’ in vibrant colours in a desperate bid to survive underwater heatwaves,”  The Ocean Agency founder, Richard Vevers, said in a statement. “Yet this phenomenon is arguably the ultimate indicator of one of our greatest environmental challenges — ocean warming and the loss of coral reefs.

“Glowing corals are a highly visual sign of climate change — an attention-grabbing indicator that we’ve reached a tipping point for the planet. We’ve turned these warning colours into colours to inspire action that everyone can use.”

 

The new colors

Pantone, Adobe and The Oceans Agency together captured the exact colours of coral fluorescence and named them Glowing Yellow, Glowing Blue and Glowing Purple

Pantone, Adobe and The Oceans Agency together captured the exact colours of coral fluorescence and named them Glowing Yellow, Glowing Blue and Glowing Purple. They say this is the palette of colours of climate change that call “citizens of the world to recognise Earth’s major ecosystems in peril”.

Why worry so much about coral reefs, Arjan Rajasuriya was asked. “Corals are like the canary in the coal mine, acting as an indicator of upcoming disasters,” he replied. “The ocean surface absorbs large amounts of climate change heat, and corals are the first sign of increasing temperatures.

“There will be more catastrophes – the excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make oceans more acidic, and that will also have an impact on fishing,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Unsung eco-warrior gains long-due protection

March 15, 2020

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/200308/news/unsung-eco-warrior-gains-long-due-protection-395606.html published on SundayTimes 08.03.2020 

Vidattaltivu mangrove forest in Mannar district (c) EFL

A hugely underrated eco-warrior is only now gaining national protection with the first steps being taken to safeguard existing mangrove forests and reclaim lost growth.

Forest Officer Devanee Jayathilaka’s courageous stance in protecting a mangrove patch in the Negombo lagoon has brought welcome media attention to the issue, speakers at this week’s National Workshop on Community-Based Coastal and Marine Ecosystem Restoration said, revealing crucial first steps to protect Sri Lanka’s mangroves.

Mangroves absorb more atmospheric carbon than other trees, making them a critical asset in the fight against global warming.

“The 2004 tsunami was an eye-opener about the importance of mangroves, which protect coastal areas from sea surges by absorbing the raging power of the waves,” Mala Amarasinghe of the Kelaniya University’s Botany Department said. “There were many reports of mangroves protecting villages from the tsunami.

“Mangroves are full of life because they also attract other biodiversity. They are good breeding grounds for fish because their root system provides perfect protection for small fish from predators.”

The Mangrove Task Force approved by Cabinet on January 20 has produced a Mangrove Conservation Policy, the head of the Environment Ministry’s Biodiversity Secretariat, Padma Abeykoon, told the conference, organised by Sri Lankan Youth Climate Action Network Trust.

Gaining approval for the policy was an important milestone, Dr. Sevvandi Jayakody of the University of Wayamba said, explaining that mangroves are seen as areas to be “developed” rather than conserved.

Another problem was that mangroves are considered nobody’s baby as mangrove patches in different parts of the country came under different agencies.

The Forest Department is now working to get the mangroves under its network of protected areas, the department’s Deputy Conservator, Nishantha Edirisinghe, said. He said 76 mangrove patches were declared forest reserves in 2019, with plans to include 12 more this year.

“Sri Lanka set a mangrove restoration target of 10,000ha by 2030. We have already initiated this programme and started a pilot project attempting to restore a few plots of abandoned shrimp farms that were previously mangrove lands,” Mr. Edirisinghe said.

Research in 2017 found that about 1,000-1,200ha of mangroves across 23 project sites have been under restoration.

Dismayingly, the failure rate is huge: only 200-220ha showed successful restoration; nine out of 23 project sites had no surviving plants. Only three sites – Kalpitiya, Pambala, and Negombo – showed a level of survival higher than 50 per cent.

Fresh threats to mangroves were revealed by environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane when he informed the conference about renewed attempts to gain approval for a shrimp farm in Wedithalathivu, in Mannar, which harbours one of the country’s largest mangrove forests and was declared a Nature Reserve in 2016.

Just a year after being declared a protected area, the National Aquaculture Development Authority proposed that a 1,000ha industrial park for farming fish, crabs and exotic shrimp species be established there, involving a fishery with a history of failures across Asia, and a record of widespread destruction of mangroves. That plan is now being pushed again. Mr. Gunawardane said.

Fire at garbage dump at Muthurajawela adjacent to a mangrove patch (c) Dinusha Nanayakkara

Fish, the ignored wildlife on our plates

March 3, 2020

On World Wildlife Day next on 03rd of March, charismatic wildlife such as endangered elephants, leopards and the vulnerable sloth bear will take the stage – but one species is routinely ignored, to our peril.

Diverse fish species on a common malu lella

There will be protests to protect forests such as Wilpattu, Sinharaja and even mangroves. “But are we concerned enough about the conservation of marine species and the marine ecosystems that support them?” questioned Nishan Perera, marine biologist at the Blue Resources Trust.

“As a society, we do not traditionally consider fish as wildlife, only as food. This perception has become a block in conserving our marine resources,” he said in an address to the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society.

The popular yellow-fin tuna (Thunnus albacares), locally known as kelawalla, is now “near-threatened” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Its cousin in the Atlantic Ocean, the bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) is already categorised as “endangered” due to overfishing. Many species of sharks and rays are termed “vulnerable”.

“endangered” fish species such as hump-head wrass (Cheilinus undulates) end up on our plates.

According to the Red List, overfishing has pushed two families of rays, wedgefishes and giant guitarfishes in Sri Lankan waters to the brink of extinction, their populations declining more than 80 per cent in the past 45 years.

Sadly, these fish are not even being targeted by fishermen but simply caught most often as bycatch – captured accidentally in nets. Most rays and sharks are slow breeders.

Rays are a threatened species, but a large number of them are killed everyday. Pic courtesy Daniel Fernando

“I dive in many places around Sri Lanka and witness a lot of illegal fishing activity,” Mr. Perera said, citing over-large nets, dynamiting and bottom-trawling among such illegal fishing methods.

“We shouldn’t be sympathetic towards these fishermen. Stringent measures have to be taken,” he urged.

Resources are not always aimed at priority interventions. A prime example, Mr. Perera said, was the case of several teams being deployed to protect the southern elephant seal from the Antarctic that came accidentally into local waters while not using similar efforts to curb everyday violations of fishing around Colombo.

“Building innovative public-private partnerships, empowering local communities to help with surveillance and monitoring, and increasing communication and networking are cost-effective ways of improving management,” Mr. Perera said in his lecture, delivered on February 20.

“This has been done in many other developing nations such as Maldives, Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, Philippines, and Fiji.

“Increasing funding alone will not solve the problem. Many past conservation projects have resulted in large sums of money being spent with little to no change on the ground.”

There is little enforcement even for the protected marine sanctuaries, Mr. Perera said, pointing out that the Department of Wildlife Conservation lacked manpower and direction to conserve marine wildlife.

Mr. Perera said Sri Lanka needs to declare more marine protected areas to lessen the damage from unsustainable fishing but admitted this was not easy.

“The recent declaration of a small area of around 950ha as the Kayankerni Marine Sanctuary was opposed by the fisheries lobby even though only a few fishermen actually fish within the sanctuary, and it was agreed to allow limited, regulated fishing within the sanctuary,” he said.

Almost 99 per cent of the east coast remained open to fishing and the areas under protection were very small.

Protected areas can act as breeding grounds, with excess fish moving outside the protected area and having positive impacts on fish catches in the long term. This is well documented in other countries, Mr. Perera said.

Antarctic seal in town – Let it be free..!!

December 23, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/191215/news/you-better-watch-out-antarctic-seal-in-town-382887.html published on 15.12.2019 on SundayTimes

It seems the elephant seal from the Antarctic might be here for Christmas, continuing to attract crowds and cause traffic jams in Colombo. The southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) that was first spotted on November 20 off Unawatuna has been resting on rocks off Wellawatte and Kollupitiya in Colombo, creating traffic congestion along the Marine Drive as curious crowds gather to watch it.

The closest colony of southern elephant seals is 6,500km from Sri Lanka, in Antarctica. This seal, which has apparently been driven here by ocean currents, is resting on Lankan beaches while going through what is termed a “catastrophic moult”.

“The moulting is an annual process for elephant seals go through and that is why its face has strips of fur falling off. This will happen all along its body, and the moult takes about four weeks,” marine mammals expert Dr. Asha de Vos of Oceanswell said.

“During this period the animal is basically shedding hair and skin, making it look pretty scabby but also making it pretty grumpy – please respect its need for space,” Dr. de Vos said.

She applauded navy and wildlife officers for controlling the crowds to give the seal rest.

When the seal was first sighted off southern Sri Lanka, it was speculated that the animal was sick as it was often seen passively resting on rocks. There was an attempt to capture it to check its health, but Dr. de Vos said the animal was healthy.

“The information going around that the animal is sick is not accurate. We have continued to monitor its body condition and have been talking with seal experts in the USA and South Africa who work with these species.

“Our assessment is that this animal is healthy and going through a completely normal process, so leave it alone,” Dr. de Vos appealed.

As the moulting process may take few more weeks to complete, it is thought the Antarctic seal will celebrate Christmas in Sri Lanka before heading back home or wandering the seas.

No respite from onlookers

The Southern Elephant Seal spotted on the beaches in the stretch between Kollupitiya and Wellawatte is being disturbed by curious onlookers who are attempting to feed the animal, take pictures and touch it.

In the absence of any wildlife officials to protect the animal, people were also seen throwing small stones or pebbles at the animal to gain its attention before snapping a picture.

At times Navy personnel who were present were able to keep the public away, but in their absence the people were seen getting closer to the seal and trying to touch it.

The seal, at times was seen taking evasive action to avoid the crowds by getting back into the water and surfacing from another spot, but only to be disturbed by onlookers all over again.

 

 

Bambalapitiya beach: The seal continues to attract crowds. Pix by Amila Gamage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antarctic seal in ‘catastrophic moult’: Expert

December 9, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/191208/news/antarctic-seal-in-catastrophic-moult-expert-381541.html published on SundayTimes on 08.12.2019

The southern elephant seal from Antarctic polar regions continued its mysterious way around the coast this week, visiting Colombo on Friday for several hours and resting on rocks off Kollupitiya beach before returning to the water. Experts pleaded with the public not to disturb the Experts pleaded with the public not to disturb the creature as it was undergoing a traumatic but natural moulting process, shedding fur and skin.

The southern elephant seal on the Kollupitiya beach on Saturday (c) Damith Danthanarayana

Southern elephant seals live in cold Antarctic regions and observers were mystified when this seal was initially spotted on a beach off Unawatuna on the south coast on November 20.

Since then it has made appearances around the coast, and in the days before reaching Colombo was seen at Lunawa on December 4, and prior to that in Wadduwa for two days and, before that, in Ahungalla on December 1.

Wherever the seal came to rest, locals gathered in numbers to photograph the unusual sight, sometimes disturbing the animal which lies passively on rocks.

Photographs taken by the paper’s Galle correspondent, Sugathapala Deeyagahage, indicated that the seal’s skin was damaged. The photographs were sent by The Sunday Times to noted veterinarian Dr. Claire Simeone of the Marine Mammals Centre in California, for her analysis.

Dr. Simeone, an expert in seal rescue and treatment, said the seal appeared to be moulting, a natural process whereby seals shed old skin annually to make way for a new one.

“Some seal species moult all of their fur and the top layer of skin over a short period once a year,” Dr. Simeone said. “Elephant seals come onto shore for a brief period to complete this normal step so that a new, clean coat can be revealed.”

Moulting is a normal process for many other species. The most familiar example is snakes, which shed their skin periodically. Some insects and spiders moult by shedding their rigid exoskeleton to let the organism grow. Birds shed old, worn feathers to replace them with fresh plumage. Cats and dogs shed fur in warm weather.

“While most animals, like pet dogs, shed hairs year-round, elephant seals do it all at once,” Dr. Simeone said. “The process is so abrupt that it’s called a ‘catastrophic’ moult. Because the animal is susceptible to the cold during this period it spends the entire month ‘hauled out’ on land.”

“During this time it spends most of the time dozing and lazily flipping sand onto itself in an attempt to manage body temperature. It doesn’t eat and may lose up to 25 per cent of its body weight. Please do not attempt to move it back into the ocean,” marine mammals expert Dr. Asha de Vos of Oceanswell added. 

Dr. Simeone said the catastrophic moult process is very taxing for the animal, so it was best to give this seal plenty of space to rest.

An expert on southern elephant seals, Dr. Greg Hofmeyr of the Port Elizabeth Museum in South Africa, states that when moulting, the old skin of the elephant seal starts to peel off like wallpaper.

He said the first real evidence of the moult is often seen behind the front flippers and around the eyes, and the entire moult takes about four weeks, with the two weeks in the middle being the most intensive.

Dr. Hofmeyr said when seals come ashore for the moult they will typically move a few times to select a good spot, and then lie in that spot for three to four weeks unless they are disturbed.

“Since the seal in Sri Lanka looks like it is in good condition, I don’t think that the moult will be an issue for him,” Dr. Hofmeyr said assuringly.

He suggested a group of volunteers be formed to keep people away from the seal. “Perhaps keep people 20m away, though the response of the seal will determine whether the distance is suitable. We used this system to guard an adult ellie seal and pup over 20 days in October-November this year. Since she was nervous, we had to keep people 100m away,” Dr. Hofmeyr said..

Dr. de Vos warned that as the moulting process is intensive the seal could feel vulnerable and threatened and become aggressive if anyone went too close to it.

“We continue to ask that people maintain a distance of at least 25m from the seal to give it sufficient space to go through this important lifecycle event,” she said.

Dr. de Vos requested any updates on the seal’s progress to be sent to of Oceanswell through @OceanswellOrg on Facebook and Instagram.

As nesting season begins, Sri Lanka’s olive ridley turtles face myriad threats

December 6, 2019
  • With the main nesting season for olive ridley sea turtles getting underway, the species faces a range of threats in the waters and beaches of Sri Lanka.
  • The country’s navy recently rescued 32 turtles trapped in shrimp fishing nets in the island’s north.
  • Marine turtles in Sri Lankan waters often end up entangled in nets, posing a serious threat to their survival.
  • Sea turtles worldwide are seriously affected by the fisheries industry, with millions killed every year.

https://news.mongabay.com/2019/12/as-nesting-season-begins-sri-lankas-olive-ridley-turtles-face-myriad-threats/  published on Mongabay on 04.12.2019

COLOMBO — The Sri Lankan Navy has rescued 32 sea turtles that were likely being reared for their flesh, highlighting just one of the key threats to turtles migrating through this Indian Ocean island at this time of year.

A naval patrol on Nov. 24 in the Gulf of Mannar, which separates Sri Lanka from India, initially identified a turtle trapped in a shrimping net. A team of sailors deployed to rescue the animal discovered more turtles trapped in the net. In all, they rescued 32 sea turtles, among them olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas).

Removing a fishing hook from a turtle. Image courtesy of the Turtle Conservation Project.

Though turtles are frequently trapped by accident in fishing nets, it appears likely these animals had been caught elsewhere and corralled in these shrimp pens, according to navy spokesman Isuru Sooriyabandara. He told Mongabay that a patrol two days earlier, on Nov. 22, had seized 4 kilograms (9 pounds) of turtle flesh from a boat close to the same location, raising the prospect that local fishermen were keeping the turtles for later consumption.

Sri Lankan waters are home to five of the seven species of marine turtles: the green turtleolive ridleyhawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea).

It’s the first two, however, that account for nearly the entire population of nesting turtles in Sri Lanka: 68 percent are green turtles and 30 percent olive ridley turtles, according to the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA). While the peak nesting frequency for green turtles in this region runs from February to April, the period between November and March is prime time for olive ridleys, which flock in the hundreds of thousands to beaches around the Bay of Bengal, including parts of Sri Lanka, to nest.

A turtle flipper seriously damaged by getting caught in a fishing net. Image courtesy of the Turtle Conservation Project.

But the rise in turtle numbers during this time of the year leads to a spike in hunting of the animals by local fishermen — a trend that navy spokesman Sooriyabandara said authorities were vigilant about.

Still, fishing nets set in the Gulf of Mannar and elsewhere accidentally catch a lot of turtles, especially in the final quarter of the year as they migrate across Sri Lanka waters to their breeding grounds, according to Thushan Kapurusinghe, the project leader of the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP) in Sri Lanka.

Entangled in fishing nets

The TCP conducted its first olive ridley rescue program from September 1999 to March 2001, in a bid to save turtles entangled in nets. It hired a boat and followed fishermen as they went fishing at dusk. The nets were checked throughout the night for possible entanglements, and any turtles found were immediately released. Over the two and a half years of the project, a total of 278 olive ridleys were rescued, comprising 157 females, 86 males and 35 whose sex was undetermined.

“The monitoring was strenuous, as a fishing net could extend several kilometers and these are laid on considerable distances to prevent turtles from getting entangled. So only a portion of fishing nets could be monitored by the TCP boat each night,” Kapurusinghe said, adding that the real rate of entanglement was likely much higher.

The front flippers of this hawksbill turtle found in Kosgoda was badly damaged due to a cut caused by a fishing net, so they had to be amputated. Image courtesy the Turtle Conservation Project.

Lalith Ekanayake, the chairman of the Bio Conservation Society (BCSSL), which also focuses on turtle conservation, said that while entangled turtles are able to keep their head up to breathe, the turtles that get caught deeper underwater are at high risk of drowning. Even those saved from the nets don’t always get away clean; many suffer injuries from the nylon mesh of the fishing nets, sometimes so severely that they require amputation of their flippers.

The IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Marine Turtles Specialist Group also recognizes the impact of fisheries as the biggest threat to marine turtles, while other threats include hunting, egg extraction and other pressures. “The turtles virtually everywhere are impacted by fisheries, especially longlines, gill nets and trawls. Millions of turtles are killed indirectly by fisheries every year worldwide,” said Roderic Mast, co-chair of IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group. Fishing nets that have been lost, abandoned or discarded at sea, known as ghost nets, pose the worst of fishing threats to turtles, Mast told Mongabay.

All marine turtle species found in Sri Lanka are listed as endangered on the country’s National Red List and are legally protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act. But laws alone can’t address the threats, Ekanayake said, adding that there needs to be greater awareness among fishing communities about their role in the issue. Both the BCSSL and the TCP run awareness campaigns about the importance of marine turtle conservation.

A sailor rescuing a juvenile green turtle from a shrimp net in the Gulf of Mannar, northern Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of the Sri Lankan Navy.

Turtle nesting sites abound all around Sri Lanka, with the major nesting beaches on the western, southwestern and southern coasts. There’s a rapid decline of turtles all over the island, Kapurusinghe said, especially the leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead varieties.

“For example, the Rekawa nesting site [in the south] hasn’t seen a leatherback turtle in two years or a hawksbill in four years, which is alarming,” Kapurusinghe said.

 

Banner image of a turtle stuck in a fishing net. Image courtesy of the Bio Conservation Society.

Allow Elephant Seal to rest before risky journey home back to Antarctica

December 6, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/191201/news/let-it-be-free-in-our-waters-380211.html published on 01.12.2019 and http://www.sundaytimes.lk/191124/news/lost-elephant-seal-pup-closely-guarded-on-unique-visit-379334.html on 24.11.2019

The southern elephant seal pup spotted at Unawatuna a fortnight ago continued to resurface off adjacent beaches: it was seen resting on rocks at Midigama on November 23, near Polwathumodara bridge in Weligama on the 26th and on successive days at Ahangama, Dewata in Galle and Mahamodara bridge in Galle.  

It is thought the animal is in distress and disoriented as the waters around Sri Lanka are much warmer than the water they naturally live in the deep Antarctic.

As the animal is resting passively on rocks it was assumed at first that it was wounded or ill. The navy and some fishermen attempted to capture the seal to check its condition but they found it to be fit and strong when it pulled a net away from them and escaped.

The Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Chandana Sooriyabandara, said officers would not try to catch the seal again.

“Let it be free in our waters. Let the animal decide what it wants,” he said.

The problem is that local residents gather whenever the seal surfaces to gain a glimpse of the unusual visitor, some of them going very close to it to take photographs and video.

Marine mammals expert Dr. Asha de Vos asked for the seal to be given space to rest.

“Elephant seals live in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions so its native range would be several kilometres away from home. He is lost but might soon try to start finding its way back. It needs rest before starting its journey back,” she said.

She also warned about safety. The seal looks passive and does not move until people get very close. “But if threatened, the seal can be dangerous as it could pounce back, biting,” Dr. de Vos said.

The southern elephant seal is the largest seal species in the world with males weighing as much as four tons.

Experts believe this individual could have begun its long journey from a seal colony on Kerguelen Island in the north Antarctic, 6,400km from Sri Lanka.

Marine watcher Ranil Nanayakkara said photographs of old wounds on the seal indicated it could have been travelling for several months.

“Those rounded wounds on its back could have been caused by bites by cookie-cutter sharks,” he said. These sharks, which can grow to 22 inches, live in warm waters so this could indicate that the seal spent some time in warm waters, Mr. Nanayakkara said.

Mr. Nanayakkara warned that deeper waters around Sri Lanka would also not be safe for the seal on its return journey as there could be killer whales, which often hunt seals. 

“Perhaps the seal had been forced to change its normal route in an attempt to escape such attacks and became caught in a current that dragged it all the way to Sri Lanka,” Mr. Nanayakkara said.

A ranger at the Hikkaduwa DWC office, Uthpala Adaranga, said there was a danger of the seal becoming entangled in fishing nets as it came close to shore, and he appealed to fishermen and other locals to alert rangers if the animal was seen or found in distress.

Marine mammals veterinary surgeon Claire Simeone of the Marine Mammals Center in the United States said elephant seals eat squid and deepwater fish, and finding this prey might be a challenge for an seal this far from home.

Dr. Simeone said southern elephant seals only come onto land twice a year, to mate and for their fur to moult. While it is rare for them to come farther north than the sub-Antarctic islands where they live, there have been cases where seals have been spotted on beaches in South Africa or Brazil. There was a sighting of Southern Elephant Seal in Oman, the furthest until now in tropical waters.

Elephant seal native to Antarctica spotted for first time in tropical Sri Lanka

November 27, 2019

Published on Mongabay on 26.11.2019 https://news.mongabay.com/2019/11/elephant-seal-native-to-antarctica-spotted-for-first-time-in-tropical-sri-lanka/

  • A juvenile southern elephant seal from the Antarctic region was recently spotted off Sri Lanka’s southern coast.
  • The seal appeared exhausted, and while there have been calls to capture it to assess its health and/or raise it in captivity, experts recommend leaving it alone and giving it time to find its way back home.
  • The species has rarely been recorded venturing into tropical waters.
  • In its native habitat, it’s threatened by the melting of the pack ice on which it breeds, as a result of global warming.

COLOMBO — Uthpala Adaranga, a ranger with Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation  (DWC), was initially doubtful about the call he received of a seal spotted near Unawatuna, off the country’s southern coast on Nov. 20. He assumed, as had happened in the past, that it was another case of misidentification, given that the tropical Indian Ocean island lies well beyond the native range of seals. But to Uthpala’s surprise, it was a seal — a marine mammal never before recorded in Sri Lankan waters.

The seal, about 2 meters (6 feet) long, spent all day on Dalawella Beach, drawing a crowd of onlookers. Wildlife officials together with navy and police personnel had to cordon off the beach to allow some resting space for the animal.

The very next day, the seal disappeared, only to resurface two days later on Nov. 23 near Midigama Beach, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) farther south. This time, it was seen resting on rocks, offering a better view to observers, including of visible signs of old wounds. When a navy team attempted to capture the seal to assess its health, it disappeared again and has not been seen since.

Using amateur video shared on social media, marine biologist Asha de Vos identified the animal as a southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina), named for its nose that resembles an elephant’s trunk. The largest seal species in the world, the southern elephant seal spends most of its time near Antarctica, only reaching land twice a year to mate and to molt.

De Vos told Mongabay that this individual seal could be from an elephant seal colony from one of the islands off Antarctica, possibly the Kerguelen Islands. That means it would have had to swim about 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) to get to Sri Lanka — a feat that’s possible with the aid of ocean currents.

“Seals are active swimmers, but it’s hard to speculate why this individual swam this far north, leaving its native range. The individual found in Sri Lanka looks exhausted and would have reached the beach for some rest,” de Vos said.

Greg Hofmeyr, the curator of marine mammals at Port Elizabeth Museum at Bayworld, South Africa, and a specialist on southern elephant seals, confirmed that southern elephant seals are known for migrating long distances of thousands of kilometers between sub-Antarctic islands and their foraging areas in the Southern Ocean. Many younger animals have an exploratory phase in their life, and the individual spotted in Sri Lanka could be one, he added.

But he said the seal sighting in Sri Lanka, so far away from the species’ native range, was unusual, as seals in general are rarely recorded near the equator.

In 1989, a southern elephant seal was spotted off Oman. It was shot dead for identification purposes. Hofmeyr said there had also been seal sightings in the Mascarene Islands, close to Madagascar, but still about 3,600 kilometers (2,200 miles) south of Sri Lanka.

These seals aren’t considered threatened because they occur in several populations, many of them large, some of them growing, and none of them isolated. But global warming has become the main threat to their existence, manifested in the loss of the pack ice habitats in which they breed, Hofmeyr said.

‘Give it space’

With the confirmed sighting, the question now for conservationists and officials in Sri Lanka is what to do about the elephant seal. The species is perfectly adapted to the Antarctic cold, and the tropical waters around Sri Lanka would be too harsh for it. There have been calls to capture it and house it in a zoo, although it’s not clear that Sri Lanka has suitable facilities.

“We do not have facilities to accommodate an animal that swims thousands of kilometers and dives thousands of meters in search of food. My advice is to give the animal space, so it can rest and then begin its journey back,” de Vos said.

Claire Simeone, a conservation veterinarian at the California-based Marine Mammal Center, which rescues and rehabilitates seals, said the seal in Sri Lanka could find it difficult to survive in the warmer waters, but that keeping it in captivity would be harder.

“Ideally, the seal’s health should be evaluated by a veterinarian familiar with the particular species,” she told Mongabay. “If the seal is sick or injured, rehabilitation at a zoo or an aquarium could be helpful. But unfortunately, it is challenging to provide the conditions needed for this species in a zoo for its entire life, because they can dive to more than 2,000 meters [6,600 feet] deep. Elephant seals eat squid and deep-water fish and finding this prey might also be one of the challenges to an animal this far from home.”

Simeone suggested the best thing to do would be to give the seal some space. Whether it’s sick, injured, or just resting, the animal will be further stressed by human harassment. “While this seal is indeed quite lost, it is possible that it just needs to rest before going back home,” she added.

She said people should not approach the seal, as it is a wild animal that can bite if it feels threatened. Though it appears exhausted and passive, seals can quickly and turn dangerous if confronted.

Chandana Sooriyabandara, the director-general of the DWC, said there were no plans to capture the seal unless its condition looked particularly bad. “We will let it be our visitor and stay freely in our waters,” he added.

 

Banner image of the juvenile southern elephant seal resting near the Midigama coastal area in southern Sri Lanka, courtesy of Ravindra Kumara, Department of Wildlife Conservation Sri Lanka

 

 

Sea level rising is real, Lanka urged to take urgent measures to avert disasters

October 6, 2019

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/191006/news/sea-level-rising-is-real-lanka-urged-to-take-urgent-measures-to-avert-disasters-371918.html published on SundayTimes on 06.10.2019

As new global reports issue fresh warning on the impact of global warming on our oceans, how vulnerable is Sri Lanka, especially in view of it being ranked second among countries facing extreme weather patterns due to climate change?

In 2004, the boxing day tsunami killed some 35,000 people in Sri Lanka and caused immense damage to property. It is said that in Batticaloa and other places in the east, the waves reached several meters high.

“If Sri Lanka were to be hit by a tsunami of a similar magnitude at a time when the sea level would have risen by half a meter, the calamity would be twice as bad as what we experienced in 2004,” warns Dr.D.P.C. Laknath, a coastal engineer, insisting that Sri Lanka should be mindful about changes impacting the oceans due to global warming.

With the sea level rising, the erosion of our beaches will become worse, while extreme weather events can bring devastating floods to low lying coastal areas. Large areas of coastal areas of Puttalam, Galle, Hambantota and Jaffna face the risk of being submerged by the end of the century with the predicted sea level rise, mainly due to the excess water from now rapidly melting glaciers.

The recently released “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate” highlighted the impacts of global warming on oceans and cryosphere —or those parts of Earth’s surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, and frozen ground. Published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the report once again emphasises that the sea level rise and other risks related to global warming are real.

The IPCC is the UN’s scientific body evaluating the science behind climate change. Its special report assessed about 7,000 scientific studies by more than 100 authors from 36 countries. It says that while the sea level has risen globally by around 15 cm during the 20th century, it is currently rising more than twice as fast – 3.6 mm per year – and accelerating.

At the 10th International Conference on Asian and Pacific Coasts (APAC 2019) held at Hanoi, Vietnam from September 25 to 28, Dr. Laknath and his research team shared more findings, stressing the importance of getting ready to face climate change impacts, mainly due to the changes taking place in the oceans. Their research paper titled “Analysis of Cyclone Events in the Bay of Bengal and Simulation of Storm Surge in the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka” won the Best Paper Award at this conference, beating more than 300 entries from several countries.

The intensity of cyclones and other extreme whether events would get increased with climate change,the research paper points out, particularly in view of the impact of warming oceans. Sri Lanka, which has already been placed second on a list of countries that had been impacted by extreme weather events in 2017, should be prepared to avert or minimise the devastating consequences.

“When earth’s atmosphere gets warmed due to the global warming effect, the sea surface temperature will rise. Sea surface temperature is one of the main contributors to generation of a cyclone and many other weather events. Thus the change in sea level temperature will increase the intensity of the weather events that impact Sri Lanka,” says Dr. Laknath, a former postdoctoral researcher at Taisei Technology Centere in Japan.

For his research, he simulated storm surges on the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka after studying the characteristics and behavior of the Bay of Bengal cyclones of last four decades. “The Eastern coastal area of Sri Lanka is more vulnerable to storm surges and coastal flooding due to cyclones; hence, a proper understanding of cyclones and the kind of damage they can cause are a prerequisite for saving lives and properties and the simulations can help to identify risks,” he points out.

In January this year, the Presidential Expert Committee published a report titled ‘Vision and Strategic Path for Sustainable Sri Lanka 2030’. The report whose chief editor was Prof Mohan Moonesinghe, a vice chair of the Nobel prize winning IPCC team in 2007, highlighted that climate projections and forecasts are very important for a sustainable economy and infrastructure planning.

The report said good prediction models, especially prepared for islands like Sri Lanka, will be necessary for climate forecasts. Most of all, developing a pool of scientists and researchers in fields such as meteorology, oceanography, geology and atmospheric physics is necessary to succeed in this task, it said.

The report also pointed out that about 5% of the land is located within a one-meter elevation from the mean sea level in the critical coastal zone that is exposed to sea level rise and the other forms of climate change effects. But of the total population of Sri Lanka, about 20% is settled within this zone. The on-going development patterns show that the populations in the coastal zone have been gradually increasing over last few decades making the residing populations as well as the properties are increasingly vulnerable to disaster situations.

Meanwhile, the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA)’s senior scientist Dr. W.N.C. Priyadarshani says some of their studies on sea level rise have also indicated the vulnerability of Sri Lanka’s coastal communities to the ocean-based disaster events is gradually increasing. The low-lying coastal area less than 1m of elevation is about 100 sq. km within the coastal belt of Sri Lanka including maximum area in Jaffna, according to the Shuttle Radar maps originally produced by NASA, the NARA studies show.

The Sea level rise around Sri Lankan waters was investigated by means of in-situ (Tide gauge) and satellite altimetry data over a period spanning two decades from 1993 to 2018. In-situ observation are made using automated permanent sea level monitoring stations which are established by NARA in Trincomalee, Kirinda, Colombo and Mirissa to cover the entire island. To study global sea level rise and ocean-based disasters and to take preventive and mitigation measures within the region, these stations are linked with a global sea level monitoring network established by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate warns impacts to oceans by global warming would be real

Sri Lanka scales up its domestic campaign to protect sharks with a global push

September 8, 2019

https://news.mongabay.com/2019/09/sri-lanka-scales-up-its-domestic-campaign-to-protect-sharks-with-a-global-pushpublished on MongayBay on 05.09.2019

  • With the killing of sharks and rays on the rise, Sri Lanka played a lead role in pushing three proposals to extend global protection to 18 species at the recently concluded CITES wildlife trade summit in Geneva.
  • Sixty-three sharks and 42 ray species are found in Sri Lankan waters, and are threatened by overexploitation driven by an ever-increasing demand for sharks fins, meat, and liver oil.
  • While five species of sharks currently enjoy legal protection against the species trade in Sri Lanka, conservationists see an urgent need to extend protection to all reef sharks and other endangered shark and ray species.

Decades ago along the beaches of Sri Lanka, fish sellers used bicycles to transport their catch, including sharks. It was said the sharks were often so big that, when tied down to the bicycle frame, their snouts and tail fins would touch the ground at either end.

“But not anymore,” says Hiran Jayawardene, the founder chairman of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA). He says this decline is evident at shark landing sites around the country, where fishermen are no longer pulling in the large sharks they did before.

Sri Lanka’s waters are home to 63 shark and 42 ray species, but many are threatened by overexploitation to feed the growing demand for shark fins, meat, and liver oil.

The result of the voting at the CITES summit in Geneva in favor of the uplisting of mako sharks to Appendix II. Image courtesy of IISD Reporting Service.

But the country is looking to change that, rolling out a raft of regulations in the past two decades to protect various shark species domestically, and, more recently, spearheading a push for the global protection of highly exploited and endangered mako sharks.

Among the many proposals it supported at last month’s global summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Sri Lanka took a leading role in calling for the inclusion of the two species of mako sharks, shortfin (Isurus oxyrinchus) and longfin (I. paucus), in CITES Appendix II, which would subject their trade to strict rules. It also called for similar protections for six species of giant guitarfishes and 10 species of wedgefishes.

The IUCN Red List includes both species of mako sharks as endangered, all six species of giant guitarfishes as critically endangered, and nine of the 10 species of wedgefishes as critically endangered.

“All these species have seen very steep declines in their populations in recent decades and this is mostly due to overfishing, habitat destruction and degradation,” Rima Jabado, the IUCN Shark Specialist Group’s regional vice-chair for the Indian Ocean, told Mongabay.

Kim Friedman, senior fisheries resources officer at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said a mere listing would not protect the species. “It matters to change the management framework of fisheries to get implemented at ground level.”

More than 100 million sharks are killed every year, mainly for their fins. Image by Malaka Rodrigo.

Protecting the ocean’s predators

In Sri Lanka, five species of sharks enjoy legal protection: the pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus), bigeye thresher (A. superciliosus), common thresher (A. vulpinus), oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), and whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Since 2001, local fishing regulations have required that any of these sharks that are caught must be brought to shore with their fins attached. The rule was enforced to curb shark finning, the practice of catching a shark, cutting off its fins mid-ocean, then dumping the live shark back into the water, where, unable to swim, it dies.

In 2013, Sri Lanka went further and introduced a five-year National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (NPOA), specifying measures for adoption and implementation of new shark conservation and management mechanisms.

Sisira Haputhantri, an ocean fisheries expert at NARA, told Mongabay that the shark action plan, since extended for another five years, should help monitor the implementation of the conservation initiatives.

Over the past 10 years, the country has official exported 59 metric tons of shark fins annually. But there’s evidence that greater volumes of shark fins are being smuggled out of the island.

There are recorded and unrecorded instances of fins being exported as dried fish, said Sevvandi Jayakody, Sri Lanka’s coordinator for the recent CITES summit.

By listing mako sharks in Appendix II, scientists can gather accurate figures of sharks killed as part of the international trade, which would help determine whether catches are reaching what’s known as the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), Jayakody said.

“We do not want to stop shark fishery but we do want sustainable fishery. CITES should help educate regulators and fisherfolk alike, on the new developments,” she said.

Both species of mako are oceanic, roam the high seas, and undertake long-distance migrations, making local protection mechanisms of somewhat limited value, according to Rex I. de Silva, author of Sharks of Sri Lanka. The CITES listing is therefore vital to protect the species in international seas.

A shark is finned at the Negombo shark landing site in western Sri Lanka. Image by Malaka Rodrigo.

John E. Scanlon, former secretary-general of CITES, told Mongabay that the convention had been used effectively since 2013 to regulate the international trade in commercially harvested sharks and rays. These include hammerheads (family Sphyrnidae), porbeagles (Lamna nasus) and oceanic whitetip sharks and manta rays, as well as silky (Carcharhinus falciformis) and thresher sharks together with devil rays (genus Mobula) since 2016. Mako sharks are the latest to join the list.

“Following the 2003 listing of sharks, there had been great progress in the conservation of white sharks, basking sharks and whale sharks,” Jabado said. “The other listings are much more recent, and it is unlikely we will see a difference in the population size of these species just yet.”

Conservation management

What countries need is better fisheries management to curb overexploitation, Jabado said.

“Many species in the Indian Ocean are considered migratory but many are endemic to this region,” she said. “This means, we need higher levels of species protection. To ensure protection of the migratory species, the best strategy is collaboration with other countries in the region, both on research and conservation.”

Daniel Fernando of Blue Resources Trust initiated a nine-day survey of fish markets and landing sites at 11 localities in Sri Lanka that led to the identification of 34 shark species. Five of them are sharks new to science. “If a short survey of nine days could help discover new species, it shows the need for greater research on Sri Lanka’s sharks,” Fernando told Mongabay.

Following the listing of sharks and rays to Appendix II during the 2013 CITES summit in Bangkok, Sri Lanka’s Department of Fisheries Resources and the FAO conducted a joint survey to identify the successes and challenges experienced in the implementation of CITES provisions.

The survey showed poor awareness about the CITES process among stakeholders. However, they had a satisfactory level of knowledge of other measures, with more than 69 percent of respondents having awareness of management measures.

Sharks caught for their fins. Finning often takes place at sea, with the live shark thrown back into the water, where it’s unable to swim and quickly dies. Image by Malaka Rodrigo.

“Shark conservation in Sri Lanka appears to be at the starting point: It has a long way to go in order to reach conservation efforts undertaken by neighbours such as the Maldives,” said  Howard Martenstyn, a marine biologist with the Centre of Research for Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM).

Promotion of ecotourism of sharks and manta rays as an alternative to fishing can offer a different revenue model for the local economy, Martenstyn said.

 

Banner image of a stuffed shark toy at the Sri Lankan delegation’s seat at last month’s CITES summit in Geneva. Sri Lanka played a leading role in pushing for greater protection for sharks and rays at the summit. Image courtesy of IISD Reporting Service.

Would CITES listing help threatened sea cucumbers due to overexploitation?

August 14, 2019

Published on Mongabay on 10.08.2019 https://news.mongabay.com/2019/08/sri-lanka-pushes-for-protection-of-sea-cucumbers-amid-overexploitation/

  • With fewer species of sea cucumbers being recorded in catches, Sri Lanka stands to benefit from a proposal that is calling for increased protection of threatened species under CITES Appendix II.
  • Experts say there’s good precedent for believing that the listing will raise awareness and spur action to protect the sea cucumbers, citing the example of various shark species that received greater attention after being listed. 

A fisherman drying boiled sea cucumbers in the sun image courtesy of Terney Pradeep Kumara.

In the early 1980s, a common sight along the still unpolluted beaches of southern Sri Lanka was that of fisherfolk sun-drying small, blackish, cylindrical objects. They called them sea slugs, sea leeches, or sea cucumbers. These marine invertebrates were so abundant in the shallow coastal regions that they could be picked by hand during low tide.

But growing demand for sea cucumbers, considered a delicacy across Asia, has since driven the largely export-oriented Sri Lankan fishery to unsustainable levels.

After the sea cucumbers in shallow coastal waters were harvested, the populations in deeper areas were targeted by snorkeling fishermen and skin divers. The fishing pressure was so enormous that the sea cucumber fishery in southern Sri Lanka collapsed within a few years.

The eastern coast of the island suffered the same fate, and today the sea cucumber fishery is confined to the northern arc of Sri Lanka. Experts say they fear the remaining sea cucumber populations there, too, will be depleted if not managed properly.

A drive to promote the farming of live sea cucumbers is being attempted in Sri Lanka as an alternative to collecting them from the wild. Image courtesy of Kumudini Ekaratne.

“As mostly scuba divers hand pick sea cucumbers now, the pressure particularly on high value species are high. Some of these high value sea cucumber species are already rare to not available on many sites,” Chamari Dissanayake, from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, told Mongabay.

Dissanayake was a former research officer at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) who studied the sea cucumber fishery. She identified 24 sea cucumber species in Sri Lankan waters, of which 20 have some sort of commercial value.

But the number being caught and sold is fast shrinking. A study published in May this year in the journal Aquatic Living Resources records nine sea cucumber species in commercial catches from November 2015 to January 2017 in Sri Lanka. That’s down from 11 species recorded in a study carried out in 2012, prompting researchers to conclude that some species are already overfished. These include the high-value Holothuria fuscogilva, known as the white teatfish and listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.

Teatfish are generally in high demand, and overfishing has caused the populations to decline in many countries. H. nobilis, the black teatfish, is another rare species found in the Sri Lankan waters and listed as endangered.

Weak species management systems, overexploitation by fishers, and vulnerable biological traits are the key reasons why teatfish sea cucumbers are under threat across their wide geographic range, said Steven Purcell, an expert on sea cucumbers at Australia’s Southern Cross University.

“The teatfish species of sea cucumbers are impacted by a compounding problem called ‘opportunistic exploitation,’” he told Mongabay. “This occurs when fishers over-harvest high-value species and then shift to harvesting lower-value species but can still collect the last of the high-value ones opportunistically, while they are out in the sea. This means that the high-value species, such as the teatfish types, can be harvested to the level of local extinction.”

As these teatfish require higher levels of protection against the international trade, a proposal has been submitted to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to list H. fuscogilvaH. nobilis and the endangered H. whitmaei (not recorded in Sri Lankan waters) in CITES Appendix II.

The proposal, supported by the European Union, Kenya, Senegal, the Seychelles and the U.S., will be considered at the 18th Conference of Parties (CoP18) to CITES in Geneva from Aug. 17 to 28.

There are three appendices under CITES offering varying degrees of protection for species. Inclusion in Appendix II will require countries to justify, through data collection and research, that exploitation and trade of the teatfish species in question won’t jeopardize their populations in the wild.

A mix of sea cucumbers freshly collected from the ocean bed. Image courtesy of Terney Pradeep Kumara.

For Sri Lanka, that could mean investing in field surveys to determine current population densities of black and white teatfish at multiple sites around the country, and socioeconomic surveys to determine which species, and how many, are collected by fishers, as well as identifying prevailing trading practices, Purcell said. This research would be required for assessing non-detriment findings and to inform decisions about whether trade should be allowed to continue at present levels.

Dissanayake’s research indicates that about 10,000 people depend on the sea cucumber fishery, a key earner of foreign currency.

“A solution has to be found by offering alternative livelihoods,” Dissanayake said.

Sea cucumbers are processed to make bêche-de-mer, a popular delicacy in East Asia. Image courtesy of Terney Pradeep Kumara.

Daniel Fernando, a co-founder of Blue Resources Trust, a marine research and conservation nonprofit, said there was good precedent to believe that achieving CITES listing for the overexploited sea cucumbers would be a key step toward protecting the species.

“Many people still consider marine fish just as a commodity and there is little focus on their protection,” he told Mongabay. “But CITES listing of marine species made lot of people around the globe to change this outlook.”

He pointed in particular to the listing of several shark species in various CITES appendices as helping to spur action for their protection.

“As a result of previous listing of sharks, many countries including Sri Lanka began investing in the protection of the species,” Fernando said. “All these marine species become threatened due to unsustainable fishing practices and lack of management.”

Citations:

Kumara, P. B., Cumaranathunga, P. R., & Linden, O. (2005). Present status of the sea cucumber fishery in southern Sri Lanka: A resource depleted industry. SPC Beche-de-mer Information Bulletin22, 24-29.

Nishanthan, G., Kumara, A., Prasada, P., & Dissanayake, C. (2019). Sea cucumber fishing pattern and the socio-economic characteristics of fisher communities in Sri Lanka. Aquatic Living Resources,32(12). doi:10.1051/alr/2019009

Banner image of a fisherman drying boiled sea cucumbers in the sun on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, courtesy of Terney Pradeep Kumara. 

Crackdown after Sri Lanka bombings may help in fight against blast fishing

July 26, 2019

Create ocean science ‘champions’ to boost nation’s security

July 14, 2019

Sri Lanka needs to understand how critical the resources of the ocean are to an island nation’s security and end its centuries’-old apathy about protecting its maritime base, leading scientists told a conference.

The state-of-the-art Control room of the Norwegian research vessel Dr. Fridtjof Nansen

“As an island nation, the resources of the ocean are very important for development and changes to ocean patterns can bring bad impacts. Sri Lanka needs to put more effort into developing understanding of the oceans around us through scientific research,” Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) General Manager Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara said.

Culturally and historically, society had been detached from the ocean and the education system needed to bridge this gap.

“We haven’t realised the importance of coastal zones. For example, most often the cemeteries of villages along the coastal belt are set up adjacent to beaches, proving that, traditionally, Sri Lankan society hasn’t realised the importance of ocean and related ecosystems,” Dr. Pradeep Kumara said.

His comments were made on Ocean Science Day, marked on June 27, organised by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, which is composed of 150 member states, including Sri Lanka.

The head of the IOC’s Ocean Science Section, Dr. Arico Salvatore, said Ocean Science Day – now in its second year – was established to demonstrate that ocean science aids societal goals.

Dr. Salvatore emphasised that countries such as Sri Lanka can benefit greatly from ocean science, particularly with ocean-based weather predictions that allow more effective planning of agricultural and fisheries operations.

“The tsunami warning system is a clear example how the application of ocean science can be used to save lives,” he added.

Ruhuna University’s Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Science students conduct research on board Dr. Fridtjof Nansen

Sri Lanka and adjacent countries benefit from the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System set up under the IOC’s leadership. At the time Sri Lanka was hit by the deadly tsunami of 2004, the Indian ocean region lacked a tsunami monitoring system. The late Professor Samantha Hettiarachchi was a major contributor to the success of the warning system, which began working in 2006.

“Sri Lanka has a lot of talent that will create champions in the field of ocean science. We are lagging behind in this field so we need to focus on a program to train more scientists in ocean science,” said Dr. Pradeep Kumara, a former head of the Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology at the University of Ruhuna.

Ocean science has evolved rapidly in recent years in response to growing international interest in ocean use, climate change, environmental protection and the conservation of ocean resources, and Sri Lanka needs to ride on this bandwagon and not get left behind, he said.

Dr. Upul Premaratne, Dr Pradeep Kumara’s successor at the university, said the faculty worked hard at producing quality graduates and it was important that job opportunities be created for them to prevent them going abroad where there was high demand – particularly in developed countries – for experts in ocean science and fisheries.

Another University of Ruhuna expert, Senior Professor Ruchira Cumaranatunga stressed the need for more resources. “We need a full-fledged research vessel that can continuously monitor the ocean around our country without us depending on other countries,” he pointed out.

Developed nations such as Norway have been showing Sri Lanka how to use modern technology in fisheries and other ocean sciences. Twenty Sri Lankan scientists were given the opportunity to sail on the Norwegian research vessel Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, which recently surveyed the ocean around Sri Lanka, assessing fish stocks and ecosystems.

The trip provided a novel experience for Sri Lankan scientists to familiarise themselves with the latest technologies, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA)  scientist Dr. Prabath Jayasinghe, said.

Published on 14.07.2019 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190714/news/create-ocean-science-champions-to-boost-nations-security-358269.html

Sri Lanka attends first-ever global summit on sustainable blue economy

December 15, 2018

Published on SundayTimes 09.12.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181209/news/sri-lanka-attends-first-ever-global-summit-on-sustainable-blue-economy-323968.html

From the Blue Economy Conference (c) http://www.nation.co.ke

Delegates from around the world gathered at Nairobi, Kenya, last week to discuss how to make the emerging ‘blue economy’ sustainable. The gathering is seen as the first global-level conference dedicated to discuss blue economy emphasising the need for sustainable use of oceanic resources.

Sri Lanka sent a six-member delegation that included officials from the Fisheries Department who said the discussions were very relevant to Sri Lanka.

The sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystems, has been termed ‘blue economy’– a popular buzz word lately. The summit covered issues facing oceans, seas, lakes, rivers and other water bodies.

Fisheries is what comes to mind as the most important resource that oceans provide. However, as land-based resources fast diminish, oceans become the last frontier that can give an extended lifeline for humankind, experts point out. Nations have already started exploring the oceans for resources other than fish, such as minerals, oil, gas and other resources as well. According to reports India plans to spend more than $1billion during the next decade to develop and test deep-sea technologies – including human-piloted exploration submarines – in the Indian Ocean that could give access to once inaccessible mineral riches up to 6.8 miles (11 km) under water.

While Sri Lanka can benefit working closely with nations who have capabilities in extracting resources, Sri Lanka should not allow its resources to be over-exploited, point out experts. Sri lanka and India have already locked horns on the issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen invading our waters and employing harmful bottom-trawling methods to catch fish. Having international corporation to solve these kinds of issues is important, therefore it is important that Sri Lanka makes use of these kinds of summits to tackle trans-boundary issues strategically, the experts add.

Blue Economy (c) World Bank

Fisheries Department director Monty Ranathunga who was a member of the delegation that attended the Nairobi said at the end of the three-day summit eight statements, dubbed ‘The Nairobi declaration of Intent on Advancing Global Sustainable Blue Economy’ was issued.

Participants at the summit recognised that with population growth, demand for goods and services will also grow accordingly, and that this will exert additional pressure on land-based resources, which are slowly diminishing or already over exploited in many cases and welcomed the global interest in developing and conserving the resources of a sustainable blue economy,the official said.

Deep-sea mining possibly as damaging as land mining

The Nairobi declaration also stated that with collective determination, and building on efforts at local, national and international levels, the global community can intensify investments and harness the full potential of the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers to accelerate economic growth, create jobs and fight poverty. Simultaneously, the world can improve the health of the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers and the ecosystems they support. The declaration also recognised that science and research are crucial for policy development, implementation and evaluation, the official further said.

Click below for ‘Nairobi Statement of Intent Advancing Global Sustainable Blue Economy’.

Nairobi-Statement-of-Intent-Advancing-Global-Sustainable-Blue-Economy

Savour and save the beauty of Mannar: A clarion call through pictures

December 2, 2018

Northern Sri Lanka’s beauty eluded the third eye of nature photographers for a long time because of security issues. But with restrictions eased after the war, well known wildlife photographers Thilak Jayaratne, Janaka Gallangoda and Nadika Hapuarachchi became frequent visitors to this region. The beauty of Mannar and Adam’s Bridge sand islands mesmerised these photographers and after a gruelling five-year effort, they compiled their experiences into a coffee table book ‘Mannar Unbound’ with the assistance of Tamara Fernando.

Mannar: A land of rugged beauty

‘Mannar Unbound’ is a result of their extensive field work documenting the flora and fauna of the region. The book spans a variety of photographic genres including avian photography, landscapes, underwater fauna and architectural ruins. Capturing the images on this challenging terrain requires infinite patience to follow trails, waiting patiently at nesting sites and often taking bumpy rides on a rough sea. The photographers had to visit the same sites repeatedly to photograph during different seasons – Nadeeka Hapuarachchi recollects the experience on behalf of the team of authors.

Some images of the book are worthy of special mention. These include photographs of species of pelagic seabirds in the Sand Islands, the critically endangered Dugong and some choice underwater treasures.However, “Mannar Unbound” is not just a collection of photographs as this visual story is intertwined with a historical story exploring the times of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial periods. The book goes further down in history telling Mannar’s tale from the glorious days of the Anuradhapura kingdom. It recollects how ‘Mahatiththa’ (Great Port) – as Mannar was known in ancient times –allowed Sri Lanka’s great kings to reap the benefits of the ancient Maritime Silk Route. The book then explores Mannar’s iconic pearl fishery and Robert Knox’s famous accounts of the region.

Adam’s Bridge, that consist of eight  sand islands under Sri Lankan territories is the only recorded location in Sri Lanka to have nesting sites for several species of pelagic sea birds. The photographers made many visits to photograph birds in these unique islands. They recall their experiences:

“Sea birds used to congregate on the third island of Adam’s Bridge National Park for their annual nesting season. When you approach the third island the first observation one makes is a mesmerizing low-set dark cloud hovering over the island, that happens to be large flocks of pelagic birds in multitudes, jostling each other to feed their hatchlings. If you were to compel a bit closer, the next encounter is a deafening cacophony of chicks and adults.”

The book recollects the mystical beauty of these sand islands. “It feels like you have this uninhibited piece of paradise all to yourself. During high tide nature puts on an extraordinary display, filling the basins of the islands with gushing sea water, which gives an appearance of the Amazon river basin on aerial photographs. The scenery melts effortlessly from white sandy beaches and gentle undulations of sand dunes to verdant salt marshes. I can happily spend the whole day here, watching from a vantage point at endless turquoise water crashing against deserted white sand shores,” one account states.

There are lots of coffee table books capturing the terrestrial animals. Rarely are there are books that capture the beauty of the ocean’s depths. But the photographers of ‘Mannar Unbound’ even dived to capture its unique marine biodiversity and  even managed to photograph a dugong – the most critically endangered mammal in Sri Lanka.

Mannar island is only a part of Mannar District, but if you have a closer look, it reveals a region that is also home to dry riverine forests, damana grasslands and dry monsoon forests. The book also portrays photos taken in other parts of Mannar District such as Madhu Sanctuary and Giant’s Tank.

“The leaves are still dripping from an overnight downpour when Janaka slings on his day pack and heads out into the river on a day with a damp morning chill. It is just after the daybreak and already the Madhu Forest is alive with hoots and chatter. A strange ululating chant starts up in the distance, fades out then builds again. ‘Listen! says Janaka, grabbing my arm and cocking one ear, that is a ‘Ulama’, can you hear? There are two of them, singing a duet”- the authors beautifully reconstruct their experience elsewhere in Mannar District in the chapter ‘Magic of Monsoon’.

“Photographs in this book freeze moments in time. But the story of Mannar is dynamic, cosmopolitan and changing even as the book goes to print. While our photographic stills capture images of beauty, they are threatened daily by encroaching industry, aggressive tourism and poor resource management. Mannar Unbound is a clarion call to savour the beauty of the region and to assist, urgently in its preservation” ‘Mannar Unbound’ concludes.

With nearly 300 breathtaking photographs that span nearly 400 pages, ‘Mannar Unbound’  is priced at Rs.9000, but there is a pre-publication offer of Rs.6500 until December 9. The ‘Mannar Unbound’ photographic exhibition portraying some of the work in the book will be held at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery on December 8 and 9. The exhibition is open to the public.

Greater Flamingo – a key Migratory attraction of Mannar

Gulf of Mannar’s rich biodiversity too featured in ‘Mannar Unbound’

Published on SundayTimes on 02.12.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181202/plus/savour-and-save-the-beauty-of-mannar-a-clarion-call-through-pictures-322539.html 

Whip-tailed marine beauty spotted in Menik Ganga river

August 30, 2018

Yala is a paradise for spotted animals such as leopard and deer, but the spotty creature found last week in the Manik Ganga near Kosgasmankada was unusual. Published on SundayTimes on 26.08.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180826/news/whip-tailed-beauty-spotted-in-yalas-menik-ganga-308087.html

A party having a dip in the river’s shallows found a long-tailed creature with a disc-shaped body patterned with many small dark spots or reticulations. From one end to the other, it was about 1 foot long. Biologist Rex I. De Silva identified the creature from a photograph sent to him by bather Geemal Harold as a honeycomb stingray or banded whiptail stingray (Himantura uarnak).“The honeycomb stingray is a common marine species in our coastal waters but finding one in freshwater is unusual,” Mr. De Silva said.

The stingray is named after the barbed stinger on its long tail, which is primarily used in self-defence. Rays and skates are flattened fish closely related to sharks. They do not have hard bones like other fish but a skeleton of flexible cartilage such as found in the human ear and nose.

Marine sharks and rays occasionally enter freshwater during spring tides, Mr. De Silva said. In times of drought, when river levels fall, seawater intrudes some distance up rivers at high and especially spring tides. Sharks and other marine species follow the seawater for a considerable distance upriver.

Shark sightings in the Menik Ganga have been recorded over the past 30 years but not sightings of rays.

The disc-shaped body of the honeycomb stingray found by Mr. Harold’s party was about 30.5cm (one foot) in diameter but the species can grow up to 2m (6.6 feet), so the one found in Yala would be a young stingray that decided to have an adventurous journey upstream.

The stingray’s tail, called “maduwa” in Sinhala, which can be three times its body length, was dried and used in olden times as a whip for punishment, the barbs on the tail inflicting great pain.

Shark spotted near warahana 2016 (c) Janaka Karunaratne

Rays are masters at bottom-dwelling. They have eyes on the top of their head/body and so relies on other senses in finding food (crustaceans, small fish, snails, shrimp etc.) on usually murky ocean beds.

Special organs on their face called ampulae allow them to navigate and find prey with electromagnetic signals.

Sadly, stingray numbers are in decline due to over-fishing, habitat loss and climate change. At present, 539 species of ray are on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of endangered species, with 107 classified as threatened. The honeycomb stingray is categorised as “vulnerable”, making this Yala sighting special.

Norwegian research vessel sail in to probe fish stocks

June 24, 2018

Nansen will address 38-year gap in marine surveys. Published on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180617/news/norwegian-researchers-sail-in-to-probe-fishing-stocks-298464.html

The long-awaited Norwegian research vessel, RV Dr Fridtjof Nansen, which sails around the globe helping developing countries set up ecosystem-based fishery management, will reach Colombo on June 22.

The Nansen, regarded as the world’s most advanced marine research vessel, will sail around Sri Lanka for 26 days, surveying oceanic conditions and fish stocks.

The ship is named after Norwegian scientist, explorer, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), who became famous for his North Pole expeditions. The Nansen Research Programme commenced in 1974.

This is the third consecutive research vessel dedicated to surveying marine resources in developing countries. The ships have made the equivalent of 60 voyages around the globe since the programme’s inception.

The first Nansen vessel surveyed Sri Lankan waters in 1978 and 1980. Since then, no such comprehensive survey on Sri Lanka’s marine environment has taken place.

In the last decades, depletion of marine fish stocks has been rampant. A major aim of the Nansen Programme is to help scientists understand the reasons for such depletion and provide data to help to lessen pressure on fishing.

“Most of the data about fisheries are extractions based on catches by fishermen. An independent study is required to assess depleting fisheries stocks and find out new fishing grounds. There can also be under-utilised fish stocks that can be harvested successfully, and research would help us to identify such opportunities,” said National Aquatic Resource Research Development Agency (NARA) Deputy Director-General Dr. Palitha Kithsiri.

While sailing on a pre-defined path around the Sri Lankan coast, the Nansen will lay nets and carry out experimental trawling at various points. The fish and other creatures caught in the nets will be analysed for detailed information on species, sizes, and catch quantity. As well, acoustic methods will be used to estimate the quantity of fish found in those waters.

Sampling will be undertaken on plankton, fish egg and larvae, jellyfish, top predators and marine life in the main oceanic zones: demersal (bottom-feeding fish in deep waters and on the seabed), mesopelagic (fish found in the intermediate ocean layer, 200-1000m deep) and pelagic (fish that swim largely in open water away from the seabed).

The onboard researchers will collect data on water parameters, sea temperature, and salinity, and will map the sea bed using powerful eco-sonars.
“So, in a nutshell, the research will collect data that will help to implement an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF), which is more than simply assessing fish stocks,” Dr. Kithsiri said.

The Nansen Programme is executed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in close collaboration with the Institute of Marine Research (IMR) of Bergen, Norway, and is funded through the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).

The Nansen’s 2018 research campaign began in January in Durban and, after taking in Sri Lanka, is expected to end in mid-October in Thailand, FAO program officer Roshini Gunaratne said.

“The overall objective of the programme is to strengthen regional and country-specific efforts to reduce poverty, create optimum conditions for achieving food security and nutrition through the development of sustainable fisheries management systems” Norwegian Ambassador Thorbjorn Gaustadsaether said.

“Norway, as a maritime nation, believes in sustainable development and plays a leading role in battling marine litter,“ the ambassador added. Plastic pollution of the oceans has become a huge problem: plastic and plastic microfibre being ingested by fish is killing them and has the potential to enter the human food chain through the fish we consume.

Global warming will change the dynamics of the ocean but we know very little about such changes. One obvious example of climate change is the coral bleaching caused by ocean warming.

While sea temperature fluctuations disrupt oceanic currents, excess carbon dioxide, believed to be the triggering fact of global warming, could create acidification by dissolving additional carbon dioxide in seawater from the atmosphere.

Fish species are particularly sensitive to these parameters, so it is expected that changes in acid levels in the seas would change fish movement patterns.

Changing temperatures in the seas could make migratory fish such as tuna, sardines and squid could shift their paths of migration and this would affect fishing catches.

Capacity-building is central to all the activities of the Nansen programme. Twenty Sri Lankan scientists active in the fisheries sector will gain the opportunity to be part of the Nansen programme according to NARA’s Dr. Prabath Jayasinghe, who has been nominated the local cruise leader of the Nansen.

A conference on sustainable development goals linked to the oceans will also take place as part of the visit of the Nansen.

The Nansen vessel docked at Colombo

Nansen’s gear used for experimental fishing

The State-of-the-arts equipment inside the ship

Even fish favourites threatened with extinction
When we visit the market to buy fish from the “malu lella” we seldom think about how these fish that are free-living creatures can face extinction if we continue to catch them without set limits.Some fish, such as sharks, are slow breeders that cannot stand over-fishing. The increasing price of some fish varieties is an indication that they are becoming rarer.Sri Lanka’s favourite fish, the yellow-fin tuna (kelawalla) and seer fish (thora) are categorised as “Near-threatened” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Fauna – only two steps away from the more dire “Endangered” category.Some coral-inhabiting fish such as the hump-head wrasse are “Endangered”, along with elephants and leopards – but fish rarely gain the attention its terrestrial counterparts attract in conservation.

The ocean has different zones based on depths and particular fish inhabit each regions. NARA’s Dr. Palitha Kithsiri said the Nansen’s research will focus on studying the mesopelagic (200m-1000m deep) region, which is currently not much targeted in fisheries.

Floating lifeline to rescue dying Bar Reef

June 13, 2018

Scientists hope a line of buoys enclosing threatened sections of the Bar Reef will provide a lifeline for the dying marine sanctuary. Published on SundayTimes on 13.05.2018
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180513/news/floating-lifeline-to-rescue-dying-bar-reef-293881.html

Bar Reef, off Kalpitiya, is one of the marine sanctuaries affected by catastrophic coral bleaching. Marine activists who deployed a number of floating buoys demarcating two sections of Bar Reef from March 26-29 to keep human activities at bay and assist the reef’s recovery, say a united front is vital for the success of such projects.

“Evidence-based science, support from the community and the right attitude are the combinationthat will work to conserve Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity,” marine researcher Dr. Sewwandi Jayakody said.

Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary covers 306.7 sq km of coral reef and is considered the healthiest coral reef area in Sri Lanka, with live coral cover of around 80 per cent of the underlying layer, until it was hit by a warm oceanic current in 1998 that also destroyed other coral reefs around the island.

Bar Reef recovered to some extent from this destruction, but was again damaged by another large coral bleaching event in 2016. “On some areas of Bar Reef, the live coral cover had fallen lower than 2 per cent,” marine researcher Prasanna Weerakkody revealed. Dead corals have turned into rubble that moves with strong currents, impeding coral building-organisms from settling in and thus slowing the recovery of the reef.

Human activities such as fishing on the reef further disturb the recovery process, so marine biologists agreed that keeping the area free of such activity could hasten its recovery. Coral reefs in and around the southern coast at Hikkaduwa, Rumassala, Unawatuna and other places have not recovered from the 1998 bleaching event. Mr. Weerakkody suggested that one factor that had contributed to the partial healing of the coral reefs in the northern, north western and eastern seas was that the war had restricted seagoing activities in these areas. This prompted the notion to keep an area of the damaged southern reef protected from human activities.

Most of the coral reefs are located adjacent to beaches, but the Bar Reef is farther from the shore and is fully submerged. In some parts, the Bar Reef is nine metres (30 feet) underwater but there are shallower areas just a metre below the surface that are affected by human activity, and a section measuring half a sq km and another smaller section have been “fenced off” by buoys.

Mr. Weerakkody explained that setting up the buoys had to be carefully-planned as they had to be fixed firmly underwater so that they would not move around and damage the coral.

The laying of the buoys was carried out by the Ocean Resources Conservation Association (ORCA) and the Department of Wildlife Conservation under the Environmental Sensitive Areas project which is implemented by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment and is supported by the UNDP with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The critical factor is how different parties joined hands to protect a natural resource, said Dr. Jayakody, senior lecturer at Wayamba University, which is also involved in this project.

“This has been a case where scientists, policy-makers, funders and even communities came together for the protection of a natural resource,” Dr. Jayakody said.

The co-operation of ORCA, the Wildlife Department, the navy, the UNDP, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), district and divisional authorities and community members of Kandakuliya, Kudawa and Kalpitiya was the crucial factor in the success of this assignment, she said.

The project team had involved the community by educating people on the importance of the Bar Reef for their livelihood. The coral reefs act as fish breeding grounds, so a healthy reef would bring up fish stocks that would help fishermen. They were told a healthy coral reef would be a jewel for tourist operators and this too would benefit the community,

As Bar Reef is difficult to monitor, being at a distance from land, Dr. Jayakody is calling on visitors to the reef and others to respect the buoy boundaries as the success of the project would depend on this.

Coral expert Arjan Rajasuriya, who co-ordinates the IUCN’s coastal and marine programme, also emphasised the importance of isolating sections of the reef from human activity and obtaining community support.