Archive for the ‘Corals’ Category

Coral dance of death: Glowing, glowing, gone

March 22, 2020 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.

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

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.

Humphead wrasse killing stirs calls for protection and spearfishing ban

February 1, 2017

Declare the endangered humphead wrasse as a protected species in Sri Lanka and ban spearfishing, researchers of aquatic resources, diving groups and conservationists demand. An environment lawyer says spearfishing can be banned under existing laws.

Outrage grew after pictures emerged showing a human-sized humphead wrasse, (Cheilinus undulates) also known as Napoleon wrasse, being hauled ashore after being killed. This fish, with its thick lips and a hump on its head, is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is also regarded as a delicacy by the Chinese especially in Hong Kong where it fetches upwards of  Rs 45,000 a kilo. This coral reef fish must be in demand in Chinese restaurants in the island as well.

The fish can grow up to six feet and can weigh up to 190 kilograms. It can live up to 30 years, but many are killed before they reach maturity.

Humphead wrasse is a popular target of spear fishermen.

In Unawatuna, a dive centre that mainly caters to Russians is allowing spearfishing which destroys many large marine species, marine activists say.

“In the case of the Unawatuna incident, the fish was speared outside the protected area and the law doesn’t ban hunting of humphead wrasse. So, we are unable to take any action against them,” said Channa Suraweera of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. He oversees marine affairs.

While hunting of wild animals on land is illegal, fish is treated as a food source, irrespective of the threat levels various fish species face.

Dr Sisira Haputantri of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency said the agency will be recommending to the Fisheries Department that the humphead wrasse be made a protected species. But that will only be a start as monitoring whether the fish is being hunted is difficult.

Large coral fish such as the humphead wrass are threatened in other areas of the island as well.

In 2013, the Sunday Times  exposed the danger to the humphead wrasse particularly in Kalpitiya area where divers who dive for chank and sea cucumber also target the giant fish. They kill the fish even if it takes cover in underwater caves.

In times past, free divers engaged in spearfishing. They can stay underwater only for a limited time. But scuba gear allows divers to continue spear fishing for longer. “Scuba gear allows a diver to stay under water for long periods and chase a target fish. Most of the mature humphead wrasse in our reefs have already been hunted and large specimens such as the one that had been speared in Unawatuna are rare. Only a handful of individual fish that flee at the sight of a diver are survivors,’’ said researcher Arjan Rajasuriya, Coordinator, Coastal & Marine Programme IUCN Sri Lanka.

Dr Malik Fernando, who is a founder member of the Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club, a diving club, recalls how wild animals once heavily hunted in colonial times, have become a source of pride and joy in the island once they are protected.

“The land animals once hunted by a few brought wonder and joy to many, such as those who ventured into wild places and protected areas in search of them. Visiting wildlife parks became a major recreational activity and a source of income for the Government. What we are proposing for the marine environment is an extension of what has been done on land: the conservation of a threatened group of animals (fishes) that would otherwise likely disappear from our waters,” Dr Fernando writes in an appeal.

The Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club sent the appeal to the Minister of Fisheries in May 2015 outlining reasons for a ban on spearfishing.

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

“This proposal would certainly inconvenience a few people. But we are confident that those who would be affected do not depend exclusively on spearing fish or renting spear fishing equipment for their existence. Like the hunters in days gone by, they will learn to live with the new rules. The result will be that the seas around Sri Lanka will once more be home to really large giant groupers and family groups of the humphead wrasse,” he observes.

“Removal of large coral fish could be detrimental to the whole coral ecosystem affecting other species as well. For example, the humphead wrasse feed on crown-of-thorn starfish that destroys coral reefs,’’ said marine researcher Rajasuriya. Also large fish such as the tomato grouper help maintain the holes in low relief reefs where the scarlet shrimp and painted shrimp take shelter. These shrimps are high value items in the ornamental fish trade and without the large fish the shrimp populations would die out and adversely impact the sustainability of the business.

The Sub-Aqua Club has appealed to the Minister of Fisheries to protect 15 large coral fish.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardane said spearfishing can be banned under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act section 28, listing the equipment under the illegal gear.

The marine experts also highlight the importance of banning illegal fishing practices such as dynamiting and bottom trawling.

A diver swimming with a gentle giant Hump-head wrasse (c)

A diver with giant Hump-head wrasse (c)

Groupers too threatened due to spearfishing 

Not only the Hump-head Wrasse, but some other large coral fish such as Groupers are threatened due to spearfishing and other illegal destructive fishing methods. So Sub-Aqua Club in their appeal to the fisheries minister to take actions, lists following coral fish to be protected. 


Humphead Wrasse Cheilinus undulatus Endangered  


Tomato Grouper Cephalopholis sonnerati Least Concern
Whitespotted grouper Epinephelus caeruleopunctatus Least Concern
Blue and yellow grouper Epinephelus flavocaeruleus Least Concern
Brown-marbled grouper Epinephelus fuscoguttatus Near Threatened
Giant grouper Epinephelus lanceolatus Vulnerable
Malabar grouper Epinephelus malabaricus Near Threatened
Camouflage grouper Epinephelus polyphekadion Near Threatened
wavy-lined grouper Epinephelus undulosus Data Deficient
saddle grouper Plectropomus laevis Vulnerable
leopard coral grouper Plectropomus leopardus Near Threatened
Roving coralgrouper Plectropomus pessuliferus Near Threatened
Yellow-edged lyretail Variola louti Least Concern
Lyretail Grouper Variola albimaginata Least Concern
two-striped sweetlips Plectorhinchus albovittatus Not Evaluated
Tomato Grouper - threatened by spearfishing

Tomato Grouper – threatened by spearfishing

Blue and Yellow Grouper 

Blue and Yellow Grouper

Giant Grouper

Giant Grouper

Published on SundayTimes on 29.01.2017


Spear-fishing threatens Giant Coral Fish

January 25, 2017

Images showing large Hump-head Wrasse (which is about 4.5ft) speared at Unawatuna raised concerns again whether spearfishing has to be banned. The Hump-head Wrasse  is categorized as ‘Endangered’ and it is important to protect this fish. Here is my article published on SundayTimes on 03.03.2013

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared last week

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared last week

Kalpitiya’s unsustainable fishing practices came under the spotlight recently after dozens of dolphins were killed after being trapped in banned fishing nets. Besides the charismatic dolphin, other “endangered” marine creatures are falling victim to illegal fishing methods, including spear fishing. Spear fishing could wipe out the world’s biggest reef fish, the Hump-head Wrasse, from Kalpitiya and other marine areas, warn marine biologists.

A Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

The Hump-head Wrasse is also known as Napoleon Wrasse, and is scientifically categorised as Cheilinus undulates. The male can grow up to six feet (two metres) and can weigh up to 190 kilograms. It has a prominent bulge on its forehead, hence the name “hump head.” Some females have a sex change and turn into males with maturity. The Hump-head Wrasse can live up to 30 years, but many get killed even before reaching maturity.

Kalpitiya fisherman Chanaka says divers who dive for chank and sea cucumber also target the Hump-head Wrasse. “Most of the larger Hump-head Wrasse are gone from Kalpitiya,” Chanaka said. In a bid to survive, the giant fish sometimes hide in cavities in underwater caves, but this does not stop divers from shooting their spears into the cavities and killing the fish.

In times past, spear fishing was done with free diving, without scuba kits. The time a hunter can stay under water was limited, but now modern spear-fishing makes use of elastic powered spear-guns and slings, or compressed gas-powered spearguns to strike the fish with accuracy. The scuba gear allow the diver to stay underwater for long periods, and divers use the extra time to go for the larger fish.

Kalpitiya Bar Reef Sanctuary architect Arjan Rajasuriya confirmed that the Hump-head Wrasse is becoming a rarity in Kalpitiya. All the larger fish have been hunted, and the Hump Head Wrasse appears to be highly vulnerable to over-fishing, he said.

The absence of the Hump-head Wrasse could be bad for the health of the coral reef, says Mr. Rajasuriya. The Hump-head Wrasse feeds on hard-shelled prey such as mollusks, starfish, or crustaceans. This includes the coral-eating Crown-of-Thorn starfish. With the disappearance of the large fish, the Crown-of-thorn starfish population is increasing and putting the system out of balance. There was a Crown-of-thorn starfish outbreak at the Pigeon Island coral reef last year.

In 1996, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Hump-head Wrasse as vulnerable. In the Red List of Threatened Species it was later upgraded to “endangered”. The fish is also targeted for the live restaurant fish trade, where fish are kept live in tanks for the customer to pick the fish he wants cooked for him. Samantha Gunasekara of Customs Biodiversity says this kind of trade is not found in Sri Lanka.

Marine biologist Nishan Perera said spearfishing is practised in other parts of the island as well. Not only the Hump-head Wrasse, but also Giant Groupers, Parrot Fish and most of the giant fish are being over-fished in our waters by spear fishing, he said. The Giant Grouper can grow up to three metres, but such big specimens are rare these days, Mr. Perera said.

Group of Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

Group of Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

Wreckers of underwater treasures must be stopped

December 13, 2015

Fish are being dynamited as they shelter in the historically important shipwrecks scattered around Sri Lanka’s coastline, damaging valuable eco-systems and putting tourist earnings at risk.

Blast fishing is one of the most destructive fishing practices, used to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. The explosion destroys underlying habitat such as coral reefs that supports fish as well as other marine life.

Fishermen detonated explosives in the wreck Orestes, also known as Tango Wreck, which lies off Hikkaduwa, according to divers posting on the SubAqua Club forum.

A few months ago, another incident was reported by diver and marine expert Nishan Perera who took photographs of many dead big and small fish floating near the British Sergeant wreck off Passikudah after a dynamite fishing explosion. The wreck suffered some damage and nearby coral had been broken.

“On that day we reached British Sergeant around 9am and there was some fish floating on the surface, gasping for air,” said Thusitha Ranasinghe, an amateur diver who witnessed the destruction.

“We immediately knew that the ship wreck has been dynamited a few minutes ago and that the fishermen had left when they saw us coming.

“When we dived there were a lot of dead fish on the seabed and trapped on the deck of the sunken ship, and a lot of half alive fish trying to keep their buoyancy and gasp for a last bit of air,” he added.

There could be more than 200 shipwrecks around the coast, about 50 of which can be reached by diving, according to the comprehensive Dive Sri Lanka website.

Five hundred years of trade, commerce, conflict and war from the time of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British resulted in a vast amount of shipping traffic all round the coast and a corresponding high number of wrecks, Dive Sri Lanka states.

Most of these wrecks have been located, including world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, which was sunk off Batticaloa.

Shipwrecks creating special underwater attraction providing shelter for marine life becoming potential to be steady magnets for dive tourism that is still in at fancy level.

There is also the danger that fishermen dynamiting a wreck might do so carelessly while there were divers underwater. The Editor of Dive Sri Lanka, Dharshana Jayawardena, recalled one such incident, “It was scary.

It sounded like a tank exploding underwater, and the foreign tourists who were underwater with us were really scared. Fortunately, the dynamiting happened about 1km away, but the tourists with me swore they would not come again to Sri Lanka,” Mr. Jayawardena said.

“The dive industry in Sri Lanka is poised to grow hugely so this will have some real impacts on our international standing and ability to compete in the international dive market quite apart from the terrible environmental consequences” said Naren Gunasekera, who is lobbying to stop blast fishing.

Statistics show there are 23.7 million certified scuba divers in the world with 2.7m going on diving holidays. They are reportedly big spenders so this niche tourist segment would be economically beneficial but if we destroy our corals and shipwrecks there wouldn’t be anything to attract the tourists, Mr. Gunasekera points out.

A sunken ship turns to an artificial coral reef, providing living and breeding habitat for enormous amounts of marine life. Dynamiting these shipwrecks for their fish and the metal is like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Dynamite is not only used on coral reefs and shipwrecks, it is being thrown into nets where large schools of fish are caught in order to prevent the fish tearing the net. Marine mammals such as dolphins and even the endangered dugongs are reported to be killed by dynamiting.

Sadly, because the destruction happens underwater, only divers can see the damage. It is important that the authorities understand the issue and take action to stop it, marine activists say.

It is, however, very difficult to carry out raids at sea to nab blast fishing culprits as they are highly organised, using mobile phones to convey alerts of approaching navy or police boats and dumping the evidence.

The fish die mostly of the shock wave, hence there is no physical damage that helps to prove they have been killed by blast fishing.

“Action to stop blast fishing needs to be taken on land, not at sea,” says Arjan Rajasuriya who was formally at National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).

“Find out how these fishermen get dynamite and take action to stop it at source.”

As blast fishing is widespread, happening daily in many parts of Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajasuriya points out that those who illegally acquire a huge amount of dynamite should in any case be considered a threat to national security.

“In the same way that police and security forces nabbed the terrorists during the time of war, a good intelligence network is needed to find the source of the dynamite supplies and then stop them getting them into the hands of fishermen,” he said.

Published on SundayTimes on 13.12.2015 –

The underwater crime scene - fish died beside ship wreck (c) Nishan Perera

The underwater crime scene – fish died beside ship wreck (c) Nishan Perera

1 The underwater crime scene - fish died on ship wreck with other dying fish (c) Nishan Perera

1 The underwater crime scene – fish died on ship wreck with other dying fish (c) Nishan Perera

Sampur power plant may pose threat to marine life

October 27, 2015

Published on SundayTimes on 11.10.2015 Please note that the title of the web version should be changed as “Sampur power plant may pose threat to marine life” 

The siting of the Sampur Power Plant seems to be unsuitable with its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) being rejected twice and the third amended EIA report being currently scrutinised by the Central Environment Authority (CEA).

India’s media reported that Sri Lanka has requested India to consider relocation of the coal power plant being planned to be built at Sampur in Trincomalee. The possible environmental impact of this power plant on marine life appears to be a cause of concern.

The power plant is expected to operate two generators adding 500 MW of electricity to the national grid. For the operation of a coal fired thermal power plant, water in large quantities is a necessity.

The proposed power plant is estimated to use as much as 90,000 m3 (cubic metres) of water per hour to generate steam as well as for cooling the system after the electricity is generated. It is planned to use sea water sucked in from Koddiyar Bay through a 2.6 metre diameter pipeline large enough for a man to walk inside it. The water used to cool the system is then to be discharged into Shell Bay – a biodiversity rich area.

This is particularly detrimental to the area as Shell Bay has a high biodiversity. A study conducted by National Aquatic Resources and Development Agency (NARA) shows there are 56 hard coral species, 160 of coral associated fish species and many other invertebrates living in Shell Bay.The discharging of as much as 90,000m3/h of water is predicted to be a problem as the water so discharged will be at a higher temperature than the normal sea water. It is predicted that the water so discharged will be about 4 degrees Celsius higher. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) using computer generated models show that this discharge would not be a problem, but discharging of such a large volume with a higher temperature for 24 hours a day and 7 days a week worries concerned scientists.


Relocation due to return of IDPs 

Indian media reported that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has requested India to consider relocating the coal power plant that is being planned to be built at Sampur, Trincomalee. There were environmental concerns over building a coal power plant in Sampur. However, the main reason for the Government to request the relocation of the plant is believed to be a social issue where the Government itself started to resettle displaced people in Sampur.

President Maithripala Sirisena inaugurated this exercise last August handing over the deeds to a selected group of occupants. The unfavourable impact of a coal power plant has been a major worry for the people who are waiting to come back to their land in Sampur. They fear their precious agricultural lands are contaminated and the air they breathe would be polluted.

When the Sunday Times queried about this news report from the CEB General Manager M.C. Wickramasekara said he has no information about such a plan. (please note that there was a mistake in print version where CEB General Manager M.C.Wickremasekara was mistakenly referred as Nihal Wikckramasuriya who is the vice chairman of CEB)  

The area has also got its name due to large volumes of shells washed ashore indicating the area is rich in these shells’ live bearers. A rare creature that can be found in Shell Bay is the giant clam.

Giant Clamp in Shell Bay

It is known that even a slight temperature rise can damage corals by triggering bleaching. Despite results obtained on computer generated models, if the temperature in the sea water continues to increase, it could impact a large area.

Not only the temperature, it is fear that the discharging water can be contaminated with sulfur emissions from the burning coal and heavy metals such as mercury.

Chlorine too will be used to clean the water and if discharged without treating, it can first impact on tiny organisms like planktons and can have a chain impact making a collectively bigger impact in the long run, is the fear o f biologists.

Such pollution is not only impacted on the bio diversity of the Shell Bay but also there is a risk of health impacts on the human beings from such heavy metals through food chains.

The Mahaweli Ganga also exits to the sea nearby bringing a high nutrient concentration and all these factors contribute to make Trincomalee Bay a unique ecosystem with high biodiversity ranging from tiny organisms to large whales.

Another color variation of Giant Clamp

“If the discharge of water is done in a careless manner, it can impact on this environmentally sensitive area” warns Dr.Hiran Jayewardene – former chairman of NARA.

He pointed out the need for doing the Environmental Impact Assessments with care, so that the project will not damage the environment.

The Sampur Power Plant did not have a proper assessment from the start. Its first EIA was submitted on August 2012 and was rejected due to being inadequate in several aspects.

The Trincomalee Power Company Ltd (TPCL) which is a joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC) and Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has resubmitted another EIA in April 2014 with amendments.

But this EIA too was found not adequate enough and it compelled the Indian consultancy firm ManTec to employ local scientists as well. The EIA was submitted in February 2015 for the third time and is being currently reviewed by a Technical Evaluation Committee.

Cooling the heated water to the sea temperature or extending the pipeline and discharging the water further into the open sea are suggested as solutions for this issue, but this will add an additional cost which at present is estimated at US$ 512 million.
The Sunday Times query sent to India’s NTPC’s general e-mail asking whether it is considering mechanisms to cool down the heated water to the sea temperature and the company’s willingness to implement such a solution has not been answered up to Friday evening.


It is also claimed that discharging these water to the Eastern side too will not be a solution as eventhough corals in those areas could be degraded, new corals can come up on top of those dead corals as they need a hard substrate.

However, a news report published in the Island newspaper in May 2015 quotes TPCL Managing Director Sanjeev Kishore as saying most of the complaints lodged against the current EIA by the public were baseless and the majority of them were repetitions.

Mr. Kishore said the company would correct the misconception that the plant would be similar to a nuclear plant and consequences of an accident would be similar, the news report further mentioned.

The Sunday Times also contacted Prof. O. Illeperuma to know about the possible air pollution impact. He said there are mechanisms to contain the pollution by coal power and it is very important to first scrutinise whether these methods would be set up and secondly, do continuous monitoring of their functioning to prevent air pollution.

However there is another issue as the present EIA has been done before the Government’s decision of resettlement of people in the area. Hence it may also need a re-evaluation in the present EIA on the air pollution radius, experts point out.

Central Environment Authority Chairman Prof. Lal Mervyn Dharmasiri said the technical evaluation of the Sampur Power Plant EIA is being done. He said the evaluation is thorough and the results will be released soon.

How a coal power plant works 

In a thermal power plant, large volumes of cleaned water are being heated by burning coal. This process converts the water to steam which is discharged through nozzles on to the turbine blades making the turbines rotate which in turn rotates the electricity generator.

The steam is then passed through a condenser that contains tubes through which cold water is constantly pumped. The steam passing around the tubes of the condenser loses heat and condenses as water. During this process, the steam gets cooled while cooling water gets heated up.

This warm water can be discharged into a natural water body for cooling (once through cooling system) or it may be cooled in a cooling tower and recycled for the cooling (closed cycle cooling system). 

Deluges strike at valuable coral reef

January 20, 2015

The intense rainfall that fell across the country a few weeks back left an unexpected victim: coral reefs.

Marine and Coastal Resources Conservation Foundation member Upali Mallikarachchi has revealed that some parts of the Bar Reef marine sanctuary at Kalpitiya have begun bleaching.

Bleaching is one of the worst destructive natural phenomena faced by corals worldwide. It occurs when coral polyps, the organisms that build corals, shed the algae zooxanthellae that give them their colour.

These tiny algae, which live in harmony with the corals, also provide food for the host through the process of photosynthesis. Without the algae the coral becomes pale white and the coral polyps can be exposed to ultraviolet radiation.

Without food, oxygen or cover from dangerous rays, the coral polyps in the reef will die a few weeks after bleaching starts.

Factors that cause bleaching through the departure of the algae include a change in salinity levels, a rise in sea surface temperature and changes in light intensity.

Mr. Mallikarachchi, a former research officer at NARA (National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency), says the bleaching at Bar Reef could have been triggered by the large volume of fresh water flowing through Kala Oya that gushed into the ocean via Puttalam Lagoon.
He quotes divers saying the water at Bar Reef recorded very low salinity levels, giving almost drinkable water, on days where it rained heavily last month.

Sri Lanka’s foremost expert on corals, Arjan Rajasuriya, agreed that the large volume of freshwater could trigger the bleaching of Bar Reef. He pointed out that the rainfall levels were abnormally high. In addition, he said, most of the rivers are dammed, so when overfull dams are opened to release excess water – as happened a few weeks ago – there is always a sudden influx offreshwater in the ocean.

When questioned, why only Bar Reef was affected while the heavy rainfall affected most parts of the country, Mr. Mallikarachchi pointed out that factors such as oceanic currents could change the movements of freshwater columns in the ocean.

Bar Reef harbours very high biodiversity and is one of the few pristine coral reef systems in Sri Lanka. The areas of coral bleaching in Bar Reef are the prime spots where coral growth is high.

Mr. Mallikarachchi is hopeful that some of these corals will survive and rest will quickly regrow.

He points out the importance of constant monitoring as Bar Reef has a high level of tourist activity which causes additional stress to the corals and can delay their recovery.

There are fears that similar phenomena would occur with increasing frequency as the intensity of rainfall has increased with the climate change. Experts also fear that the increase of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could make the oceans more acidic.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) data shows coral species are heading towards extinction more rapidly than other organisms. Corals are the breeding habitats of many fish species that have economic value, so losing coral reefs will affect the whole oceanic system.

Lanka pinpointed as winner if reefs conserved

May 28, 2014
An Acropora coral about 6 inches regrowing on Artificial Concrete Coral Structure (c) Arjan Rajasuriya

An Acropora coral about 6 inches regrowing on Artificial Concrete Coral Structure (c) Arjan Rajasuriya

Stronger storms, rising seas and flooding are placing hundreds of millions of people at risk around the world – in Sri Lanka and other countries a major part of the solution lies off-shore, according to a new study that finds coral reefs reduce wave energy by 97 per cent.
The study, by scientists in the United States, estimates that 197 million people worldwide would receive risk reduction benefits from coral reefs alone and will have to bear higher costs of disasters if reefs are degraded. Sri Lanka is placed at ninth on a scale of reef-affected countries, with 4m people among the direct beneficiaries.

Sri Lanka experienced the damage caused by sea surges during the tsunami of 2004. Some of the worst devastation was recorded at Peraliya, near Hikkaduwa, where it is alleged that coral-mining left the area wide open and vulnerable to the tsunami wave. In this era of climate change where the intensity of storms are increasing and sea levels are rising there is greater need of protective coral reefs as nature’s defence against such natural disasters.

Sri Lankan coral expert Arjan Rajasuriya says priority should be given to protect our remaining corals reefs and let degraded reefs recover naturally.Severe coral bleaching caused by a warm oceanic current killed most of the coral colonies around Sri Lanka in 1998. Mr Rajasuriya said the recovery of coral in the coastal areas is slower than coral far from the shore, indicating that pollution, illegal fishing methods such as dynamite and other similar factors are slowing recovery.

Artificial reef structures could be used to help the re-growing of coral reefs. As co-ordinator of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s marine and coastal programme Mr. Rajasuriya recently conducted a survey on artificial reef structures in Unawatuna – a pilot project set up by IUCN and Holcim Lanka in 2008.

Under this project, several cone-shaped concrete structures were deployed underwater and left alone to naturally grow corals. IUCN has conducted two surveys so far which reveal encouraging news that new coral colonies have established themselves on the reef cones.
All the concrete reef cones were covered by calcareous material from the accumulated growth of calcareous algae, barnacles and other organisms, according to the last survey report. Growth is slow but with time more species of coral are expected to grow on the cones, says the optimistic coral expert.

Mr. Rajasuriya warns that artificial reef structures should not be set up ad hoc. Corals are made by micro-organisms called coral polyps and they need right conditions and right surface to grow. Artificial reef structures should be placed in right places and be made heavy enough to withhold a strong storm. If the structures are light they can do much harm to existing coral when they are dragged to and fro by ocean currents.

Operation starfish to save reef

October 7, 2013
Volunteers dive at Pigeon Island to protect the corals from a carnivorous predator – Malaka Rodrigo 

Armed with improvised spears, the team clad in scuba gear, were submerged in the clear waters off Pigeon Island. Seeing an area where corals were destroyed, they descended like sharks that had spotted their prey. Taking aim, they speared the starfish that was the cause of the destruction.

The thorny interloper: Starfish that have been removed from the coral reef 

Pigeon Island is one of Sri Lanka’s two Marine National Parks and it is prohibited to hunt any creature in this sanctuary. But Wildlife Officers too supported this mission as the ‘Crown of Thorn Starfish’ are extremely destructive to the corals, feeding on the microorganism polyps that build them. According to marine biologists, the number of COT in the Pigeon Island reef began increasing last year exceeding the threshold of their natural occurrence, hence the need for action to control the damage.

“We came to know about the outbreak at Pigeon Island and as conservation oriented underwater explorers, we wanted to organise a programme to remove the COTs on Pigeon Island Coral Reef,” Upekshi Perera, President of the Sub Aqua Club said.

It was no easy task as some of these creatures are hidden inside the corals. The starfish also has protective thorns that are venomous. The recommended method of removing the COTs is by injecting Sodium bi-sulphate using syringes with long needles, but the team had to come up with other methods.

Travice Ondatje of Nilaweli Beach Hotel who is also a member of Sub Aqua Club was the mastermind behind creating the team’s main weapon – the ‘broomstick spear’. “It was simply a broomstick with a five millimetre steel rod (used for concrete) tied to one end,” Travice said. The team had taken time to learn how to manoeuvre the improvised spear.

The team comprised 12 divers from the Sub Aqua Club and three from the Ypsylon Dive Centre that also provided some of the dive equipment. Forming three teams, they had done two dives – each taking one and half hours. Teams moved in semi circles inspecting the corals on the southern part of the reef. One diver held ‘plastic laundry bins’ to collect the starfish speared by the other members.

The team fills up buckets of Crown of Thorn starfish

At the end of the day, the team had removed 181 Crown of Thorn Starfishes – double the number we thought we could achieve, said Dharshana Jayawardane, dive officer of Sub Aqua Club. The density of the COT on top of stag horn corals was more, he added.

Dr. Malik Fernando, an expert on Sri Lanka’s marine life and founder member of the Sub Aqua Club said there are COT outbreaks once in a while and intervention is required to manage them. Coral ecologist Arjan Rajasuriya praised the work done by the Sub Aqua Club members highlighting the need for such an exercise annually. Government agencies should organise a programme to facilitate volunteers as diving is a costly exercise, he said.

The worst outbreaks were in the 1970s and early 80s. Not only the East coast, but many other areas too have been infested and thousands of COTs had been removed under the guidance of Dr. de Bruin, a Research Officer attached to the Department of Fisheries, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Mr. Rajasuriya said that there can be various reasons for a COT outbreak. More nutrients in the water and removal of fish that prey on COT and also the warming oceans could provide optimal conditions for COT larvae to thrive.

Upekshi further added that Pigeon Island is a tourist attraction and unless we take care of such habitats, there will be nothing to showcase in time to come. She was grateful for the support that Nilaweli Beach Hotel and Ypsylon Dive Centre gave them. The Sub Aqua Club is planning to do this as an annual event, she said, happy that they had done their bit for Pigeon Island.

Coral monitoring programme needed

According to IUCN Red Data, Corals are one of the most threatened species in the world. Corals are useful for many reasons even in breaking the power of unexpected sea surges such as a Tsunami.  Some years ago NARA had a coral- monitoring programme and NARA chairman Dr. Sayuru Samarasundara said the agency plans to re-commence it next year.

Know the enemy

The crown-of-thorns (Acanthasterplanci) receives its name from venomous thorn-like spines that cover its upper surface like the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus. An adult starfish can grow up to 35 cm (14 in). They usually have 21 arms but this number can change from population to population, points out Arjan Rajasuriya.

Their spines are stiff and very sharp. The adult crown-of-thorns is a carnivorous predator that usually preys on reef coral polyps. It climbs onto a section of living coral using its large number of tube feet and flexible body and fits closely to the surface of the coral, even the complex surfaces of branching corals. It then extrudes its stomach out through its mouth over the surface to virtually its own diameter. 

The stomach surface secretes digestive enzymes that allows the starfish to absorb nutrients from the liquefied coral tissue. This leaves a white scar on the coral skeleton which is rapidly infested with filamentous algae. 

An individual starfish can consume up to six square metres (65 sqft) of living coral reef per year according to Wikipedia.

published on SundayTimes on 06.10.2013

Kalpitiya killer

February 3, 2013

The banned ‘laila’ net is steadily killing off the dolphins, writes Malaka Rodrigo�

Illegal fishing practices used in the seas off Kalpitiya have resulted in the death of more than 40 dolphins, investigations reveal. The dolphin casualties have sparked demands for a rigorous crackdown on banned fishing methods.

Dolphins are frequent casualties of illegal fishing methods

A sandbag used for a Laila net dropped among shallow corals

Last week, Police arrested 14 fishermen and confiscated six boats and banned fishing equipment, including what is known as the “laila” fishing net. The Police were acting on a directive from the Fisheries Ministry based on complaints from members of the Kalpitiya fishing community.

The “laila net” was the cause of the death of the 40 dolphins, Dr. Sayuru Samarasundara, chairman of the National Aquatic Research and Development Agency (NARA), told the Sunday Times.

The laila net is a type of large ring net or purse seine net used to encircle large shoals of fish. It can be closed at the bottom to maximize the catch. This fishing practice has been condemned as destructive, as it entraps both large and small fish and can result in the elimination or extinction of a fish species in targeted fishing areas. Dolphin groups are known to associate closely with tuna and related species such as skipjack tuna and bullet tuna. Because dolphins feed on small tuna-related fish, fishermen follow dolphin groups in order to locate high-value fish, explained NARA fish expert Dr. Rekha Maldeniya.

A laila net operation involves the use of between five and six boats and a team of fishermen as well as divers and snorkellers. It is said that the force of the fish struggling to break through the net is so great that the fishermen use dynamite to kill or stun the fish. Dolphins are regular casualties of this fishing method.

Kalpitiya sources say the destructive laila fishing method has been in use for some time, and that dolphins are a frequent by-catch. As dolphins are a prohibited catch, laila fishermen are careful to dump the dead dolphins at sea. Local sources say the dolphin carcasses are sometimes tied to sand bags and dropped so that they sink to the sea floor.

Marine biologists say laila nets are laid in close proximity to the Bar Reef Sanctuary, an important ecosystem in the Kalpitiya area. The Bar Reef was declared a sanctuary after extensive work conducted by NARA under environmentalist Arjan Rajasuriya.

Mr. Rajasuriya said laila nets were not around at the time he was doing his Bar Reef research in 1989 and the early 1990s. The laila net came into use only in the late 1990s. Mr. Rajasuriya told the Sunday Times that the Bar Reef is one of the country’s most diverse marine habitats and requires protection. “But, sadly, all the larger fish are gone, and the destructive laila net is the chief culprit,” he said.

The destructive impact of laila netting goes far beyond killing dolphins, Mr. Rajasuriya said. This form of fishing basically targets spawning aggregations of fish. Many species of fish, especially those that live in groups, come together seasonally to spawn. Jack (paraw), snapper (atissas) and barracuda (jeela) often aggregate in Kalpitiya waters days before the real spawning, travelling as a “large ball of fish.” One laila net is sufficient to wipe out whole colonies of these fish. Most of the larger fish are now gone, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Environment and wildlife activists are working with tour operators to push for the protection of the country’s marine resources. Kalpitiya Dolphin Watching is lucrative business. Tourists go to see the dolphins and the underwater corals. If dolphins continue to be killed and corals continue to be destroyed by dynamiting, tour operators will have little to show tourists. Tourism operators should be at the fore in action to protect the Kalpitiya ecosystem, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Displaced Mannar fishermen brought laila net during war years

Laila netting is not a traditional fishing mode in Kalpitiya. According to locals, the laila was introduced by Mannar fishermen who were displaced during the war. �Although the war is over, the Mannar immigrants continue to operate on the northwest coast where the fishing grounds are much richer than on the east coast.

Residents say the Mannar fishermen operating in the area have political backing. The indigent Kalpitiya fishing community is against the laila fishing mode, and has held several protests to demand preventive action.

Back in 2004, Kalpitiya fishermen held a satyagraha to condemn laila net fishing. Another sit-in was staged two years ago in Kalpitiya town.�A catch made with a laila net can weigh up to 8,000 and 10,000 kilograms. To get such a large catch on board can take up to one hour, ample time for the authorities to conduct a raid on the operation.

For now, however, the Department of Wildlife Conservation has no designated marine unit or even a boat to conduct a raid. The Sri Lanka Navy too has taken no action in regard to illegal laila net fishing. zUpali Mallikarachchi of the Marine and Coastal Resources Conservation Foundation says sustainable fishing methods should be strengthened and supported.

Published on SundayTimes on 03.02.2013

ICUN 2013 desk calendar features ‘Marine Wonders’

January 5, 2013

As the year ends, the hunt for good 2013 calendars has begun. Wildlife is now becoming increasingly popular theme for calendars, but marine biodiversity is rarely a theme considering difficulties in getting good underwater photos. However, the new IUCN desk calendar for 2013 selected the theme Marine Wonders considering the importance of raising awareness on Marine Biodiversity.

Sri Lanka, as an island nation with a coastline of 1,585 kilometres,is home to a rich and diverse marine life. But little is known about the vast array of species that inhabit our waters or about the marine habitats that these species inhabit. Through this calendar, IUCN Sri Lanka particularly aims to create a better understanding and awareness on the importance and threats facing a selection of Sri Lanka’s marine species.

12 stunning pictures of Sri Lanka’s seascapes and marine biodiversity, photographed by some of the country’s top nature photographers have come together in this handy desk calendar for 2013. Dolphins, Whales, Shipwrecks, marine fish and corals will be featured monthly on your desk. The calendar will also be an ideal gift for the festive season.

The desk calendar priced at Rs 500/-, is available for sale at the IUCN Sri Lanka Country Office, 53, Horton Place, Colombo 7 and at the Casa Serena Gallery, 122, Havelock Road, Colombo 5.More details on how to get copies can be had from 11 2682418 or through email

Published on the SundayTimes on 30.12.12

Climate Change Emerge as a threat for Species in National RedList 2012

December 24, 2012

Sri Lanka has permanently lost 19 amphibian species and five flowering plants. Climate Change emerges as a factor that would threaten Sri Lanka’s Biodiversiy – Malaka Rodrigo reviews the National Red List 2012 

Do a search on the freshly launched National RedList 2o12. You will notice that Climate Change emerged as a new threat among other traditional threats such as habitat loss, pollution or over-exploitation. Here is how National Red List 2012 evaluate Climate Change as a threat.

Arjan Rajasuriya who has written the chapter of Corals of National RedList 2012 recognizes Climate Change as the major threat for Corals. “The major widespread threat to corals is from climate change. In 1998 large extents of shallow water corals became bleached and many reefs were damaged extensively. Their recovery is variable and even within a single reef area such as the Bar Reef individual patch reefs has shown different levels of recovery”. The researcher also points out that Coral bleaching with some regularity has been observed recently, especially on reefs in the east and north. In 2010 there was severe bleaching of the coral reefs in the Pigeon Island National Park and Dutch Bay in Trincomalee. These reefs are heavily degraded and have not shown good signs of recovery. The increase of atmospheric temperature during a drought is believed to be the cause of these localized bleaching.

Freshwater Crabs records the highest Endemism for Sri Lankan wildlife where 50 out of total 51 known species of Fresh water crabs are Endemic to Sri Lanka. Mohamed Bahir and Dinesh Gabadage who study these Freshwater crabs say local climate change joins the other threats such as influx of fertilizer and pesticides, rainwater acidification and increased erosion leading to sedimentation of water bodies can be sited as other major threats on the habitats of the freshwater crabs. The sedimentation threat can also be aggravated by Climate Change as it is expected to bring more extreme rainfall that leads to create runoff water bringing more sediments to natural waterways.

Discussing about the threatened status of Amphibians;  Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi and Dr.Madhava Meegaskumbura stresses the need of science-based conservation that seeks to address threats such as environmental pollution, climate changes and habitat degradation. We have permanently lost 19 amphibian species, all native to Sri Lanka, as confirmed by the National Red List of Conservation Status of Flora and Fauna of Sri Lanka 2012. The list, announced last week, notes that apart from the 19 amphibians that have gone extinct, two fish species, one reptile species and yet another amphibian species are labelled “possibly extinct” at the national level. So the scientists calls the need of more research to asses the true situation as Climate Change could be definitely a game changer for Amphibians.

Dragonfly experts Dr.Nancy van der Poorten and Karen Conniff sees their evaluation differently. “Dragonflies are also used to monitor the effects of climate change” they penned down. The life of dragonfly revolves around water where eggs are laid in water; the larva spends its life in water feeding on aquatic prey; and adults usually court and mate near the oviposition site. Because of this intimate connection to water. Climate Change will have a direct impact with rainfall patterns and hence water. So these experts point out Dragonflies can be used as indicators to monitor the effects of climate change.

RedList graphicThe Red List highlights that Sri Lanka permanent loss of five flowering plants, and fear for the 177 plants listed as “possibly extinct”. R.H.G. Ranil and D.K.N.G. Pushpakumara of University of Peradeniya stresses climate change further worsen the situation particularly for Pteridophyte plants like Ferns that are really depend on  moisture.

Talking about the Mangroves, Prof. L.P.Jayatissa of University of Ruhuna says although much has been learned from them, significant gaps still exist in our understanding of the ecology of these systems, and particularly, of the likely effects of climate change for Mangroves. Prof.Jayatissa further stresses that if the impacts of climate-change will not be considered now, the efforts on mangrove protection and conservation may just be wasted in the long-run. He recommends to continue the studies on mangroves aiming protection, conservation and sustainable use, with particular emphasis on likely impacts of climate change.

Talking about Orchids, Dr.Suranjan Fernando advocates studies on effects of climate change and environmental sensitivity on native orchids are also needed.

Dr.Terney Pradeep on conservation of marine fish highlights climate change and related ocean acidification and sea level rise could further threaten the marine fish species.

The Red List 2012 evaluated a total of 2,264 faunal (animal) species, including 936 endemics, and 3,492 floral (plant) species, including seed- producing plants (gymnosperms) and ferns; 943 species are endemic. Scientific data on many animal groups is lacking, and this is a big drawback in evaluating their conservation status, specially on the impacts of new emerging threats such as Climate Change said Sri Lanka Red List fauna coordinator Professor Devaka Weerakoon.

Doona ovalifolia – Pini Beraliya is ‘Extinct in Wild’

Some plants, such as the Alphonsea hortensis and Doona ovalifolia, are found only in the Botanical Gardens; so they are categorized “Extinct in the Wild”.  National Red List flora coordinator Dr. Siril Wijesundara told the Sunday Times that more than 3,000 plants were evaluated for the 2012 list, about 1,000 more than in 2007.

Let’s all wish the Climate Change will not hit us as badly as predicted, because some of the mass extinctions in the history was triggered by Climate Change.

Published on SundayTimes on 23.12.2012

East coast threatened by coral-eating Invasive star fish

June 11, 2012

As the world celebrated World Oceans Day on June 8, environmentalists here are concerned about a rapidly growing coral-eating startfish, in the East coast.

Marine naturalist Prasanna Weerakkody issued this warning after spotting an increased population of the Crown of Thorn Starfish in certain areas of the Coral Reef in Pigeion Island, in Trincomalee.
The Crown of Thorn Starfish (COT) is a large sea starfish that lives and preys on live coral, destroying them in the process. They have an interesting way of feeding on the corals by turning inside out their gastric sac (stomach) through their mouth, covering their food with the sac and digesting it with enzymes.

Mr. Weerakkody had observed 28 large Crown of Thorn starfish in a southern section of Pigeon Island reef and extensive feeding scars on the coral.

Crown of Thorn starfish feeding on the corals at Pigeon Island

If the population density of Crown of Thorn is spread over more than 20-30 per hectare it is considered an outbreak . The present density observed on a casual dive was about double that density, he said. Therefore the true extent of the infestation is expected to be much higher as a greater part of the population may not be visible on a casual observation.

The Crown of Thorn has a mysterious life cycle. The starfish releases eggs and sperm into the water and when the eggs are fertilized naturally, they develop into a microscopic larvae stage that spends two to four weeks drifting as plankton in ocean currents. The juveniles settle on the reef . They live among rocks and rubble on the reef and are almost invisible until they are about six months old.

Arjan Rajasuriya of NARA too has observed the increase of Crown of Thorn starfish on a nearby coral reef in Dutch Bay in Trincomalee during a dive about two weeks ago. Mr. Rajasuriya recalling an outbreak of COT in the mid 70s said it had damaged many of the coral reefs in the East coast. He said a large number of snorkeling volunteers were employed to pick the COTs and bury them in the sand.

Mr. Rajasuriya fears that changing environmental conditions in the reef could result in another outbreak. The floods in the East last year too may have contributed to an increased population of the star fish, the coral expert points out. The runoff water that ended in the sea that brings with it large amount of sediments and enriches the sea water with nutrients could have assisted the Crown of Thorn larvae to survive by producing enough food.

Global Warming too could have provided conditions for larvae to survive. Mr. Rajasuriya said that a single COT can lay more than two million eggs, so given the right conditions they can survive and an outbreak of Thorn of Crown can be as devastating as an outbreak of a swarm of Locust. Mr. Rajasuriya stressed the importance of monitoring the Crown of Thorn populations .

Two of the most widely tested and successful ways of controlling an outbreak of the Crown of Thorn Starfish are the physical removal of each and every star fish or killing them by injecting sodium bisulfate (dry acid) solution, he said.

DWC needs a dedicated Marine Unit

Pigeon Island has been declared a Marine National Park together with Hikkaduwa and Kalpitiya’s Bar Reef. The management of these marine national parks comes under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. But the department does not have a proper marine unit which has been highlighted by the Sunday Times.

An outbreak of Crown of Thorn starfish doesn’t happen overnight and a well equipped marine unit would have been able to detect such a situation. But the department is trying to manage the Marine National Parks similarly to the way they administer the terrestrial national parks such as Yala, the Sunday Times learns. Even officers who have been trained in diving have been transferred to land based national parks.

published on SundayTimes on 10.06.2012

Pigeon Island become a coral tomb

July 25, 2011

DWC sans training in diving, out of its depth to protect, manage Marine National Parks By Malaka Rodrigo 

Last year, The Sunday Times of May 16 reported that, sections of Pigeon Island corals were under bleach attack, and ‘dying’ a natural death. This exclusive article titled ‘Corals under Bleach Attack’ highlighted the need to monitor this pristine reef.

Recently, those who dived off Pigeon Island, confirm the worst has happened, with large areas of corals destroyed. But, are the guardians alert to monitor and protect this valuable reef?

Pigeon Island reef: Before bleaching – Pic by Nishan Perera
Pigeon Island reef: Today – Pic by Dharshana Jayawardena

Dharshana Jayawardena, who dived off the reef a few weeks back, says that many parts off Pigeon Island are like large coral tombs. The corals and marine life, once vibrant and beautiful, when Dharshana dived off the same area last year, were all gone, with only the discolored debris remaining.

Coral bleaching is one of the worst destructive natural phenomena faced by corals worldwide.

It occurs when coral polyps- the organisms that build corals, shed the algae zooxanthellae that give them their colour. These tiny algae, which live in harmony with the corals, also provide food for the host through the process of photosynthesis. Without this algae, the coral looks pale white and the coral polyps can be exposed to ultraviolet radiation.

Without food, oxygen or cover from dangerous rays, the coral polyps in the reef will die a few weeks after they start getting paler. When the sea surface temperature rises, corals start releasing this algae, triggering the bleaching.

The reasons for the bleaching last year was believed to have been the unusually high Sea Surface Temperature (SST) prevalent around the eastern parts of Sri Lanka, and the Sunday Times warned then that Pigeon Island corals too showed signs of entering into the first stage of such a bleaching, as warned by marine naturalist Prasanna Weerakkodi.

Researcher- National Aquatic & Research Agency (NARA), Arjan Rajasuriya, who studied corals, pointed out that the temperature at the Bay of Bengal, at that period of the year, had arisen to 34 degrees Celsius, although normal SST varies between 28 – 30 degrees Celsius. But last year, severe bleaching was recorded mainly in the Trincomalee area and the corals in the other parts of Sri Lanka suffered minor bleaching. Last year when Arjan dived Pigeon Island at end of May, he found extensive bleaching of the reef where more than 90% of the Corals were bleached. This bleaching was also observed in Dutch Bay according to the NARA Coral Expert. But surprisingly the bleaching restricted only to the Trinco area. Corals in Batticaloa suffered only minor bleaching as per Mr.Rajasuriya. He said that, this kind of sporadic bleaching was also reported in countries such as Maldives, Kenya, Mauritius too.

Coral bleaching has already become a serious problem in Sri Lanka and worldwide, pushing many of the coral species to the brink of extinction. It is believed that Global Warming makes it worse. The Indian Ocean experienced its worst coral bleaching in 1998, due to a warm oceanic current. The SST of some areas of the Indian Ocean had gone up due to the La Nina climatic phenomenon at that time, resulting in warm oceanic currents killing pristine coral reefs in many parts of Sri Lanka, including the Hikkaduwa coral reef that is still to recover.

However, the corals off the East coast escaped the 1998 coral bleaching, though corals in nearby Batticaloa reef- some as deep as 42m, were bleached according to Mr. Rajasuriya. He believes the oceanic upwelling in Trincomalee, where the surfacing of cooler water from the deep, had lowered the SST, negating the effect of the warm 1998 El Nina current, saving Pigeon Island in 1998. Arjan says that, after 1998, sporadic bleaching was recorded on several reefs, but they were not widespread as the present case in Pigeon Island.

Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Dr. Chandrawansa Pathiraja said he too had received information about damage to corals and the department was monitoring the situation. He said the department would obtain assistance from the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).

Ticketing causes inconvenience claim tour operators

The DWC started issuing entrance tickets at two of Sri Lanka’s Marine National Parks, Pigeon Island and Hikkaduwa. Local adults were charged Rs 40 per head, while a child was charged Rs 20, with a service charge of Rs 300 for a boat. Foreigners are charged US$ 10 per head, while US$ 8 per head was charged for a group. Boat fee is Rs 125 per visit.

Though they do not complain about the fee, tour operators and hotel owners say the ticketing process inconveniences tourists. All visitors have to come to the ticketing office located at Nilaweli for their tickets. However, unlike a terrestrial national park, where there is only one or two entry points, Pigeon Island can be approached from different locations. There are tourist hotels dotted around Nilaweli. For example, those who leave Nilaweli from nearby Uppuweli beach, will take an additional 20 min to land at Nilaweli for their tickets. Tourists (even ladies and children) need to help the boatman pull the boat ashore. When pulling the boat ashore, it could land on a passenger’s foot, if the tourist is on the wrong side of the boat, causing serious injury. Then the boatman has to go to the ticket counter, leaving the boat unattended, to fill a form and pay the money, where, more often than not, there is a queue, they complain.

Dive instructor Felician Fernando suggests that the DWC allows tour operators to buy tickets in advance, so that they could go directly to the island. He points out that it is the practice at the Cultural Triangle, where travel agents buy such round-trip tickets, and give same to the tour guide, to avoid delays.

Owner of Nilaweli Beach Hotel, who is also a diver, Travice Ondaatjie too says it is a logistical nightmare for everyone to come to the beach to buy their tickets, and requests that hotels be permitted to sell them.
Felician also points out the need for buoys to be positioned above coral reefs, when their clients dive. At the moment, boats have to drop anchor, sometimes causing coral damage when they fall on it.
Dr. Pathiraja commenting on the issue said an online ticketing system would be implemented within the next few months.

Marine scientists offer help – why not take it..?

The DWC is not alone, if it is really keen to protect these corals. The Sri Lanka Sub Aqua Club (SLSAC), which represents Sri Lanka’s diving community, is also willing to offer its assistance. Secretary- SLSAC, Naren Gunasekera said they are willing to offer their support to the DWC to monitor the reefs.

He stresses that scuba diving and snorkeling are important parts of the tourism portfolio that Sri Lanka has to offer. But most of these underwater sites are extremely delicate and need continuous monitoring and science driven management. It will also ensure that they remain in a state that can provide tourists a good experience (for example, to ensure that the bleached Pigeon Island reef is restored to ‘health’ within the next decade).

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of commitment from the DWC to engage these divers and other interested parties willing to give of their time to help educate the DWC on marine matters. Nishan Perera recalls, as part of a project in 2007, a complete ‘Marine Protect & Manage Area’ toolkit was compiled and handed over to the DWC. Alas, it has gone unheard. However, these marine scientists are still willing to offer their assistance to conduct free surveys and other services to manage underwater Ecosystems.
Marine scientists also complain that the DWC is a barrier to scientific research in these areas on many instances.

However, Dr.Pathiraja said the department was willing to to work with the scientists and diver community.

published on SundayTimes on 24.07.2011 

Lanka’s tsunami destruction aggravated by destroyed coral reefs

March 13, 2011

The train caught in Giant Tsunami wave in Peraliya

The tsunami that  struck Japan on Friday brought back memories of the tsunami of 2004 that devastated many parts of Sri Lanka. At the time, the steady destruction of coral reefs around the country was believed to have aggravated the impact of the disaster. The theory was confirmed by Sri Lankan scientist, Harindra Fernando, who was in Sri Lanka recently.

“We created a model of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami wave in the lab and tested the effects of damage caused by different wave heights, with and without underwater barriers resembling corals,” said Professor Harindra Fernando of the University of Notre Dame, Illinois, US.

Prof. Fernando was in Sri Lanka in January to initiate talks for joint research with India on the Indian Ocean monsoons. He was also on a team of international scientists who visited Sri Lanka immediately after the tsunami in 2004.

Prof.Harindra Fernando – expert on Fluid Dynamics

The team collected data, including the height and reach of the tsunami waves in different parts of the country. At Peraliya, the tsunami wave was about 30 feet, and surged inland for more than a mile; at Hikkaduwa, the wave came ashore at a height of about nine feet, and barely grazed the beach. Such dramatic variations prompted the team to investigate the underwater conditions at these spots. Divers were hired to asses the extent of damage to underwater coral reefs. They came back with photographs that revealed greatly reduced coral cover in areas where the tsunami had caused the most destruction.

Back at his lab in the US, Prof. Fernando, a specialist in fluid dynamics, and his team used a wave tank to run waves at different speeds and heights, and measured the results with and without underwater barriers.

“We made tsunami models with simulated coral reefs,” Prof. Fernando told the Sunday Times. “What we saw was that where there was no coral, the surging water increased by a factor of three or more. Put simply, if you take resistance off from a flow, it moves faster.”

In 2005, a year after the tsunami, Prof. Fernando and his research team demonstrated scientifically that there was a direct link between coral mining and the level of tsunami devastation. Despite the finding, coral mining continues in many parts of Sri Lanka.

“We do not seem to learn from our lessons, even after a deadly disaster,” says environmentalist Jagath Gunawardane. Coral mining goes on unchecked, especially in the East and North. In the southern areas, most of the coral reefs have already been destroyed.

An environment law specialist, Mr. Gunawardane said coral mining is illegal, and that the Police, the Department of Coast Conservation, and the Department of Wildlife Conservation were authorised to enforce the law, whenever necessary

Published on SundayTimes on 13.03.2011 on

Save the forgotten wrecks

July 18, 2010

Abandoned shipwrecks rich in marine life have the potential to be steady magnets for dive tourism but they are being salvaged indiscriminately for scrap metal

MV Cordiality, a large ship operated by a Chinese crew was anchored in the seas off Pulmoddai, loading valuable ilmenite, when LTTE Sea Tigers attacked it on September 1997. Six sailors were killed and the ship sank with its cargo close to the shore.

This war victim was forgotten within months, but nature claimed its ownership of the sunken vessel. Corals started growing on its large metal surface and thousands of fish and marine creatures have found the shipwreck a safe haven for the last 13 years. Now however the ship is being salvaged for scrap metal.

Teaming with marine life: The wreck of MV Cordiality

“The MV Cordiality shipwreck at Pulmoddai has now become a huge artificial coral reef in the ocean, transforming itself into an oasis of marine life,” says Darshana Jayawardane, a marine naturalist who went diving near the wreck in May. “One could spend hours just looking at the multitude of exquisite Lionfish, Scorpionfish, Butterflyfish, Juvenile Snappers, Nudibranchs and Fusiliers that swam around the massive hull. The huge towers, pillars and twisted pieces of metal lay around with ilmenite at the bottom, reminding one of a moon landscape,” Darshana said.

MV Cordiality could be easily developed as a key destination to attract tourists who travel around the world exploring marine and coastal environments. Dive Tourism or wreck-diving is now becoming a huge business that forms a significant component of the growing global tourism industry. Sri Lanka has real potential to develop high-end Dive Tourism, based on these wrecks, point out marine specialists.

But shipwrecks, especially in the North and East, are being destroyed for their metal. Authorities sometimes claim salvaging is done to clean the shallow waters or because the wrecks are a problem for fishermen who cannot lay their fishing nets due to the underlying wrecks. But what they do not know or consider is the long term value these wrecks can bring to our economy.

The revenue that can be gained by Dive Tourism based on these shipwrecks can be much more than the wreck’s scrap metal value. If the average amount of metal that can be salvaged from this shipwreck is estimated as 15,000 metric tons and one kilogram of scrap metal is worth about 20 rupees – salvaging can bring Rs.300 million revenue from MV Cordiality. But the long term gains from marine tourism are much greater and nothing special has to be done compared to the money that is spent on salvage operations. The marine tourism potential of a ship wreck is in fact incremental because it is becomes richer with biodiversity and coral cover day by day.

Sinking ships for tourism

Amal Karunaratna, another enthusiast who dived at MV Cordiality, labels it a world class shipwreck which could attract thousands of divers a year for several decades, earning revenue for dive operators and the hospitality industry in an area that has faced massive privation through the war and the Tsunami. “All we need to do is preserve it – nothing else is needed for this to be a true resource for the local community” he pointed out in his write up about MV Cordiality.
In some other countries, governments purposely sink decommissioned ships to create sites for Wreck Diving.

Despite being a tedious process, sinking ships has been practised by countries like Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, USA and UK, which carefully consider the return of investment it brings. But these ships sunk under a controlled process cannot replace the value of a sunked wreck which has its own place in history. Sri Lanka on the other hand is already blessed with many shipwrecks and has the potential to be a great destinations for wreck diving.

Sri Lanka’s star shipwreck that lies off Batticaloa at a depth of 42 metres is the HMS Hermes, the first ship in any navy to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier. This was sunk by a Japanese air attack in April 1942 and placed Sri Lanka among other top Wreck Diving destinations. Tourism sources say about 30 divers will arrive in Sri Lanka to dive at this world famous shipwreck.

Other famous shipwrecks in Sri Lanka of interest to divers include Conch (Hikkaduwa), Earl of Shaftesbury (Hikkaduwa), SS Rangoon (Unawatuna), Colombo Cargo Wreck, Colombo Taprobane East Wreck, Colombo Barge and MV Cordiality (Pulmoddai).

(See and click on the “Shipwrecks” link under the ‘information’ section for more information about shipwrecks in Sri Lanka)

Sri Lanka also has many ships sunk during the colonial era and a few even prior to that which are of enormous archaeological value. According to Sri Lankan law any ship older than 100 years cannot be salvaged considering its archaeological value.

But sadly even these are not safe from racketeers eying a quick buck. The diving community had to put up a big fight in 2008 to stop the illegal salvaging of such a wreck lying off Hikkaduwa -the Earl of Shaftesbury. This capsized as far back as 1893, but was the target of greedy racketeers and those who were involved in saving the Hikkaduwa wreck received death threats, highlighting the organized nature of the crime and the political backing it recieves. It was the intervention of the President that saved the Earl of Shaftesbury in 2008.

Marine naturalist, Dr. Malik Fernando, who started diving as far back as the 1960s, reckons salvaging wrecks for iron is on the rise. First the dynamite fishermen started dynamiting the ship wreck sites prior to the ’80s, as these sites are rich fishing grounds. Then they realized there were valuable metals such as brass, copper and started breaking them up using dynamite. “Then came salvaging ships for their iron,” he explained.

Dr. Malik, who has done Wreck Diving in the UK decades ago, says Sri Lanka has true potential to develop to the standards of wreck diving in developed countries.

“Shipwrecks are also spawning ground for fish, so keeping the wrecks intact will increase economic benefits through the fisheries industry,” points out a Marine Biologist of National Aquatic Resources Research & Development Agency (NARA), Arjan Rajasuriya, who dives regularly. He says marine pollution together with illegal fishing practices puts huge pressure on fish populations. Quality breeding grounds are necessary for sustainability of the fishery that creates the livelihood of many.

The fisherman already sees a decline of fish harvest and removing shipwrecks will destroy some of the quality fishing grounds being enjoyed at present. “So destroying the wrecks for its metal value is indeed killing the goose that lays golden eggs,” says Arjan.

It is believed there are as much as 75 shipwrecks, big and small, around the country. It may be too late for MV Cordiality, but there are also many wrecks in the Northern and Eastern theatres of war and many of them are still unexplored. Should we allow these wrecks be destroyed for short term revenue or protect them to gain much higher economic benefits in the long term? This is in fact, the million dollar question.

published on – The SundayTimes on 18.07.2010

Paradise gained may soon be paradise lost

September 26, 2009
Holiday-makers flock to Pigeon Island in Trincomalee raising concerns over the destruction of its coral reef. Malaka Rodrigo reports.
It is an underwater paradise full of vividly coloured fish. In the clear calm waters of the Pigeon Island coral reef are also differently shaped corals, most of them live corals. But as we swim back toward the shallow waters, Eric, the diving instructor points out a large area where the corals are damaged. The colourful fish are not to be seen and it looks like a mass graveyard.“This area was full of live corals three months ago, before the current tourist frenzy started at Nilaveli. Visitors who come to the island often walk on the corals and some of them even break the live corals to take home as souvenirs,” Eric said. A diving instructor who operates from Nilaveli Beach Hotel, Eric does several dives around the Pigeon Island reef daily.

 Last week’s picture of visitors to the island walking on the corals
Last week’s picture of visitors to the island walking on the corals

Pigeon Island is one of two Marine National Parks in Sri Lanka uplifted to its current status in 2003. The other Marine National Park – Hikkaduwa is badly affected and conservationists fear the Pigeon Island reef too will face the same fate due to lack of management after visitors started flocking to the area following the improvement in the security situation in the east.

Now, on a long weekend, thousands of holiday makers head to the beautiful Nilaveli beach. Most of them visit Pigeon Island that is only about a kilometre from the shore, but only a handful have any idea about the invaluable coral reef that surrounds the island.

During the peace accord in early 2002, Pigeon Island suffered from over- visitation. But the situation has been kept under control this year, thanks to the Navy who keep a close watch on visitors.

“Uncontrolled heavy visitation can be a huge burden to a fragile ecosystem like Pigeon Island,” says marine biologist Nishan Perera, an expert in coral fish. Some important fragile marine sanctuaries control unsustainable visitations. According to this system, there is an allotted daily quota of visitors allowed. “Perhaps, it is the time to look at such a quota system, if we are serious about protecting our marine ecosystems,” he says.

Usually a national park has several zones to control visitor activities in sensitive areas and experts propose that similar zonal demarcation be done in Pigeon Island. This would need to be handled by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the main guardian of this invaluable ecosystem.

  (c) Nishan Perera

“We are considering banning bathing on Pigeon Island,” said wildlife ranger Saliya Bandara. The small bay in the island is not a good bathing spot anyway, as the corals can cut bathers’ feet when they step on them.

Since last week, DWC officers have been at Pigeon Island and Nilaveli beach. But without a marine protection unit or experience in protecting a marine sanctuary that also needs some sort of underwater surveillance conservation is a problem. Proper guidelines are needed as it is different from administering a land national park.

“Last weekend alone our boats did 106 rounds to Pigeon Island,” said Thuwan, president of the Nilaveli Boat Operators’ Association. Eight visitors are taken in one boat bringing the total estimate of visitors nearly 1000. Unlike a land national park that extends across thousands of hectares, Pigeon Island is only few square kilometres, so this is a big concentration for a small area.

The Navy has given permission only to 18 boats to operate from Nilaveli beach to the island despite hundreds of requests. This is in contrast to the situation in 2002 where hundreds of boats took visitors to the island. “Sometimes there were about 20 boats waiting in a queue to enter the island,” said Travice Ondaatjee of Nilaveli Beach hotel.

With the onset of the North East monsoon and seas getting rough, there will be a drop in visitors, giving authorities a few months to put together a proper management plan to protect Pigeon Island.

Practical conservation

Recognising the problems arising from over-visitation to Pigeon Island and the environmental repercussions, Travice Ondaatjie of Nilaveli Beach Hotel recently arranged an awareness session for boat operators and Navy personnel – who are already contributing practically to Pigeon Island’s conservation.

Nishan Perera, the marine biologist who conducted the session emphasized the need to extend protection to surrounding areas too, pointing out the importance of including Irakkandi Coral reef located a few km away, into the boundary of Pigeon Island National Park as this too is a high biodiversity area. published on SundayTimes 27.09.2009

Reef raiders making coral tombs (at Hikkaduwa)

August 2, 2009
A look beyond the Hikkaduwa beach fest shows slow death of underwater paradise
The beach carnival at Hikkaduwa ends todaywith this picturesque coastal town attracting tens of thousands of fun-loving people for this annual event, that lasted four days. But beyond the flamboyance of the shows on the beach, a dark story was unfolding beneath the blue waters. It was the story of Hikkaduwa’s once-famous coral gardens.


Coral reefs are known as rainforests of the sea because of their high level of biodiversity. Being a tropical island, Sri Lanka has many coral reefs, but the most popular is the one at Hikkaduwa. Those who take a ride on a glass-bottom boat can still see many corals in Hikkaduwa, but the truth is that they are looking at dead corals.

Watching the vibrant-coloured fish through the glass-bottom of the boat in the past was an experience in itself. But today, most of the fish colonies consist of one or two species. The health of the Hikkaduwa reef is fast degenerating.

The world famous Hikkaduwa reef started loosing its glory in the late 1990s. The first to attack the reef was invasive algae. This attack in 1997 reduced the live coral percentage. Then came the infamous coral bleaching event. This happened due to a warm ocean current generated by the global climatic phenomena called El-Nino in 1998. The temperature of the Hikkaduwa waters rose by 5 degrees Celsius. As a result, the friendly algae that not only brought colours to the corals but also protected them from the sun’s ultra violet rays started dying. It is said that no coral can survive without a friendly-algae coat.

Coral bleaching reduced the live coral cover of Hikkaduwa to an unbelievable 5% with some coral species, which were common in Hikkaduwa becoming extinct.The reefs could have been salvaged if they had been left undisturbed, but human activities continued to harass the sensitive eco-system.
The latest threat comes from a harbour development project that overlooked the ecology of the reef area. The tsunami-damaged Hikkaduwa fisheries harbour was reconstructed with an extended breakwater just north of the reef.

Hikkaduwa has an ocean current that goes parallel to the shore and moves the sand northward. It is believed that this breakwater stopped this natural phenomenon and sand started accumulating around the reef area, posing a major threat to the reef. Sand-filling has already covered the sea grass beds and disturbs the recovery of the reef. Some experts fear that the reef will be fully buried in sand in the next few years.

“The average depth of the water in the reef area is about two metres, but sand accumulation has reduced it to one metre,” says Terney Pradeep Kumara of the Ruhuna Univestity’s Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology.

Sea anemon with Clown Fish

It appears that the hydrological survey for the fisheries harbour project was not done properly. Since the harbour project cannot be undone, there is an urgent need to find a solution to save the reef. Some marine experts suggest pumping of the accumulated sand to the deep oceans. They say this can be done by setting up a sand-pumping station at the breakwater. Though this station also could have some environmental impact, at least it will give a chance for the Hikkaduwa reef to recover.

Being a marine expert who works in the area, Terney also believes that tourism-related activities also contribute to the death of the Hikkaduwa reef. Glass-bottom boat rides and visitor activities delay the recovery of the reef, he says.

“Each time a visitor steps on a coral, he causes damage to the delicate structure that had taken years to grow,” Terney says stressing the need for zoning the Hikkaduwa coral reef area by way of an urgent solution. “This will provide a separate area for visitor activities like swimming, glass-bottom boat rides, research etc. It is like keeping buffer zones in national parks. Boat movements too have to be regulated,” he says.

Transplanting corals
Prasanna Weerakkody, a marine naturalist who is involved in the restoration work at the adjacent Rumassala reef says coral transplanting which can expedite the recovery of the corals can also be tried by way of a solution.

He points out that most of the corals that are growing in Hikkaduwa after the bleaching are ‘opportunistic’ coral species that spread fast and do not add much diversity to the reef. “They are like weeds which grow fast like trees at a rainforest after they are cut. The reef may recover on its own if it is left undisturbed, but still it will be painfully slow. One way to quicken the recovery is bringing corals from outside. But this is not an easy task. Any attempt to restore a reef must start with a good background knowledge on the needs of each coral species,” Weerakkody says.

There were several attempts at coral transplanting aimed at restoring the Hikkaduwa reef. Before the disasters struck, some 40 percent of the Hikkaduwa reef consisted of Acropora formosa – stag horn-type of corals. But they had become extinct, especially after the bleaching in 1998.

A team from University of Colombo brought a live coral colony of Stag Horn type from Kapparathota reef in 2000. This type of coral hastens the recovery as even the broken corals can continue to propagate themselves. The reintroduced colony grew successfully, but unfortunately a tube worm colony started growing on them destroying the newly hatched. Another invasive species — the black sponge — also attacked the new corals, but despite several reminders, the research team was unable to remedy the situation.

This experiment shows that coral transplanting can be used, but it requires a clear plan and a long-term commitment. The Hikkaduwa reef comes under the protection of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) since it was declared as the first Marine Sanctuary in 1979. Its status is uplifted to a Marine National Park in 2002. But despite being a reserve in law, it is very difficult to control visitors because Hikkaduwa is one of the key tourist areas.

Tourism-related and other human activities continue on the 1.35 km beach front extending from the rocky islets near the Coral Gardens Hotels to the southern breakwater of the fisheries harbour. However, the DWC’s presence has stopped only the fishing in the area.

The task of protecting Hikkaduwa should not solely be the responsibility of the DWC. Every stakeholder, including the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), fisheries harbour authorities, the police, hoteliers, guides and even tourists, should take part in a proper long-term management plan to save the Hikkaduwa reef and the corals and bring back Hikkaduwa’s past glory.

What is a coral reef?
The primary organism responsible for the structure of a forest is the tree. Likewise, a coral reef is an underwater ecosystem comprising thousands of life forms. But like the tree in a forest, the coral reef is built by colonies of tiny reef animals known as coral polyps.

Individually, coral polyps are small and rarely grow bigger than a centimetre across. The coral animals usually live in colonies and each polyp builds a limestone skeleton which links with the skeletons of all other members of the colony over generations to form the structures we readily recognize as a coral.
Thousands of tiny coral polyps form coral colonies. An aggregation of thousands of coral colonies of many different species form coral reefs. There are 183 different coral species found in Sri Lankan reefs.

The reefs serve many purposes in the coastline – they are important centres of bio-diversity, fisheries production and nursery grounds, aesthetics, tourism, coastal stabilization and barriers against coastal erosion. Most coral reefs like Hikkaduwa are located close to the shore and easily accessible. Thus, they are often subject to the brunt of pollution, human impacts and extreme weather conditions.

Use of destructive fishing methods, removal of reef corals for lime trade, unregulated tourism, collection of marine organisms for souvenirs, unplanned coastal development, boat and anchor damage, pollution, global warming and invasive species are some of the threats to Sri Lanka’s corals.
Hikkaduwa, Pigeon Island and Kalpitiya have beendeclared as marine protected areas in Sri Lanka, but all these coral reefs face many conservation issues.

Source: Reef Help Guide –
Nature Conservation Group.

This is published on SundayTimes on 02.08.2009