Archive for the ‘Under aegis of CSE Fellowship’ Category

The importance of studying physics of the ocean

September 18, 2010

An international panel of oceanographers met in Colombo last week to discuss ‘Physics of Estuaries and Coastal Seas (PECS)’. Here Malaka Rodrigo speaks to Prof. Charitha Pattiaratchi, a Sri Lankan born scientist attached to the University of Western Australia who chaired the symposium

Prof. Pattiaratchi while on Oceanographic research using high tech equipment

“Have you watched the film ‘Day After Tomorrow?'” asks Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi, here to chair the four-day international seminar on “Physics of Estuaries and Coastal Seas”. The subject sounds daunting, but he manages to make it interesting.

The plot of the film includes a theory about the continuous belt of global oceanic currents driven by changes of salinity and water temperature and the kind of disruption it can cause if this process is disturbed. “This oceanic currents system cannot stop overnight like the plot of the movie, but the oceanic current theory is indeed true science that illustrates the importance of studying the physics of the ocean,” Professor Pattiaratchi explained.

Prof. Pattiaratchi while on Oceanographic research using high tech equipment
In an oceanic system, salinity and temperature decide the density of the sea water and density finally defines pressure. So changes of salinity and temperature ultimately create low and high pressure zones in the ocean simulating the oceanic current system that is vital for Earth’s climate stability and also for the health of the oceans. The ‘Day after Tomorrow’ phenomenon involves physics of global level oceanic currents, but changes of salinity and temperature can happen in estuaries where rivers meet the sea at different levels, creating different impacts.

Estuaries that form a transition zone between river environments and ocean environments are always subject to both marine influences, such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water and riverine influences such as flows of fresh water and sediment. In these estuaries, the freshwater from river systems mixes with the sea water which has different salinity levels, so ocean water that is dense remains in the bottom, but freshwater flows on top layers. “These different water levels are like oil and water which does not easily mix acting as two water bodies in the estuary,” Professor Pattiaratchi said.

Usually the freshwater flows from rivers are flushed out to the sea within a few days. But if freshwater that is also bringing lots of nutrients stays long in the estuary, it can affect the water quality and disrupt the ecology of the estuary ecosystem which has been tagged as one of the most productive natural habitats in the world. It is a very fragile system, but future phenomena like sea level rise related to Global Warming will have direct impacts on the hydrology of the estuaries since the estuaries will be the first frontier to face sea level rise.

Oceanic scientists around the world have realized the importance of developing computer models that can predict the effects of sea level rise for the estuaries in the next 50 – 100 years. One of the aims of PECS is also to develop a model which can predict changes in estuary systems as a reaction to environmental changes. Hence management measures to minimize the damages may be taken. “In simpler terms, we are trying to develop a model to predict the changes in weather in estuaries” said Prof. Pattiaratchi.

‘Coastal and estuarine observations and modeling’ has been adopted as the theme of PECS this year. Around 80 oceanographers from different parts of the world participated in this four-day seminar held at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. The PECS seminar is held once in two years and this is the 15th symposium held since its inception in 1978.

Why Whales off Mirissa?

“Physics of oceans can also be helpful for us to understand the areas of fish abundance,” Professor Pattiarachi says. Usually the dense underwater currents are rich in nutrients and at some points in the ocean, they are brought to the surface by upwelling currents. This simulates development of tiny plankton that fish can feed on.

So this food chain goes on helping biodiversity to thrive on some areas. The PECS International Seminar also provides a forum for junior scientists and engineers working in this field. Asha De Vos, a PhD. student of Prof. Pattiaratchi is currently doing related research on why whales are seen in abundance off the southern coasts of Mirissa and Weligama.

“Whales are giants that have high energy demands. So abundance of food may be a key for the aggregation ,” said the young marine biologist. Prof.Pattiarachi also pointed out there are submarine canyons that can attract whales and they are created at points where rivers flow to the ocean.

First Sri Lankan Physical Oceanographer

The first Sri Lankan Physical Oceanographer Prof. Charitha Pattiaratchi holds Bachelors, Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Wales, UK. He has been at the University of Western Australia for over 20 years and currently holds the positions of Winthrop Professor of Coastal Oceanography and Head of the School of Environmental Systems Engineering.

He has played an active role in examining climate change effects in coastal regions of Western Australia particularly in terms of ocean currents, wind and wave climate, sea level variability, coastal flooding and beach stability.

“I’ve had this interest from childhood,” said the Professor, an old Royalist. At school, he was a national level swimming champion and held the 100m under 19 record for 18 long years.

published on SundayTimes 19.09.2010

Chank fishery racket

September 13, 2010






Published on Lankadeepa on 08.08.2010

IYB for Kids: Friends in the ocean

August 25, 2010

This is the part 7 of ‘Explore Biodiversity with Kids’ series dedicated to the International Year of Biodiversity. Puncha & Panchi – the curious siblings explore biodiversity around them..

“Look Aiya.. there is somebody similar to Crush, the turtle in the cartoon,” Panchie shouted, seeing a board with a picture of a turtle. Crush was a cartoon character in the film ‘Finding Nemo’, Panchie enjoyed very much.

Puncha too remembered the cartoon. “But are there turtles in these beaches Thaththa..?” Puncha wanted to know. “Do you want to see turtles..?” asked Prof. Uncle who was driving the car. “Yes.. Yes… Please uncle, PLEASE”, brother and sister shouted together. Prof. Uncle stopped the vehicle near a large board with “TURTLE HATCHERY” on it. Puncha and Panchie hurriedly got down.

“This is a turtle hatchery where little turtles are kept for a few days,” explained Thaththa to the kids, showing them a large tank with little turtles swimming around. They had small shells and were afloat, constantly paddling to catch their breath.

“The sea turtle is a reptile and has to come to the surface to breathe air,” said Prof. Uncle. “But they can also stay under water a long time holding its breath”.

A sea turtle hatchling
An adult sea turtle
Turtles arrive at an Arribada nesting site

Panchie had taken a baby turtle in her hand and took a closer look at it. “It is good to release these baby turtles to the sea, but they have to wait a few days in these tanks,” Prof. Uncle said.

“Where is their mother..?” Panchie wondered. “The mother turtle does not stay with its babies Panchie. It comes to a beach at night, digs a hole and lays dozens of eggs. Then the mother covers the eggs using sand and goes back to the sea”, Thaththa explained.

“After a few days the eggs are hatched and the little turtles usually hurry towards the sea. But unfortunately some bad people dig the turtle nest and steal the eggs”. Puncha and Panchie were sad when they heard this and vowed they would never eat turtle eggs.

“Some turtle varieties like the Olive-ridley turtles visit certain beaches during a certain period to lay eggs in thousands. Some of them migrate across long distances to reach the egg laying grounds known as arribadas”.

“Some bad people also kill the adult turtles. Because of these cruel acts, the turtle has become a threatened creature,” explained Prof. Uncle. The poster on the wall near the turtle tanks explained that there are five turtle species visiting Sri Lanka to lay eggs. They are the Green Turtle, Olive Ridley Turtle,
Hawks-bill Turtle, Leather-back Turtle and Loggerhead Turtle.

The poster said that most of these turtles are ‘Endangered’ or ‘Critically Endangered’. “This means that if we do not protect turtles and their habitats, they will all soon vanish from the seas. Do you want that to happen kids..?” asked Prof. Uncle. “No.. No.. WE MUST PROTECT OUR TURTLES,” said both Puncha and Panchie at once. Published on FundayTimes on 22.08.2010

Illegal shell fishing on the rise?

August 1, 2010

Three detections of illegally collected under-sized chank or sea shells were made in July alone, raising concern whether smuggling of these shells is on the rise.

The latest chank stock containing more than 20,000 shells was recovered by Mundel Police on Thursday. They were hidden in a house in Kattagaduwa and the suspects were produced before the Negombo Courts.

Some of the shells seized at Mundel. Pic by Hiran Priyankara

Chank is the shell of a marine mollusc called Indian Conch and chank fishing can be done only under a permit issued by the Fisheries Department. However, it is prohibited to collect live Indian Conch that are smaller than seven centimetres in length as the intention is to allow this slow breeder to mature until able to lay eggs.

Last week, Kalpitiya Police too seized a stock of under-sized chank and arrested two suspects. On July 11, Navy personnel had also captured a boat smuggling chank shells to India. Bangles made from chank are in demand in India and Bangladesh thus spurring the racket to smuggle out Sri Lankan chank.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardena who raised the need to enforce the law for conserving this marine mollusc says the regulations to protect it came late and are also inadequate. Regulations governing chank fishing were made as early as 1890 through a special Chank Ordinance.

However the protection granted under this Ordinance has been removed by the 1996 Fisheries Act and environmentalists had to fight to get the regulations reinstated. The latest regulations in 2001 again enforced the size limitation up to seven centimetres, but Mr. Gunawardena says this limit has to be further increased to provide more chance for mature chank or conch to breed.

However, these regulations are poorly enforced. Last year alone, the Customs Biodiversity Unit detained several container loads consisting of under-sized chank. In one such instance, more than 75% of the chank were undersized raising doubts as to whether field Fisheries Officers who should grant approval properly monitored the catch.

A standard seven centimetre gauge is used to measure the size where the shells which pass through the gauge are graded as undersized. published on SundayTimes on 01.08.2010

By the light of a solar lamp

July 25, 2010
‘Green house gases’, ‘Renewable energy’ or ‘climate change mitigation’ don’t mean much to the fishermen at Ambalangoda Madampa lagoon. But an environmentally-friendly lamp is brightening their lives. Malaka Rodrigo reports.

Standing on a small wooden jetty on a cold night at the Madampa Lagoon dotted by the lights of the fishing canoes, I can see the fishermen busy checking their nets. A canoe moves toward us. Instead of the traditional kerosene lamps, the fisherman is using a somewhat high-tech lamp emitting a bright light that would assist him to collect the fish entangled in his nets.

Nelson – the old fisherman in the canoe who has been fishing for a living for decades is quite happy using this innovative solar-powered lamp. “Fishing is easier with this new light,” Nelson says turning the light towards me. The light can be twisted toward different directions while its hood helps to keep the beam concentrated. This mobility is handy compared to the old kerosene lamp which the fisherman had to balance in the small canoe.

Nelson and his grand-daughter with their new solar powered lamp and below fishermen are taught to operate the lamp

There were instances when the kerosene would spill contaminating the catch. Such accidents also pollute this important ecosystem. The adjoining Madu Ganga is a Ramsar Wetland of international importance. The kerosene lamps were also difficult to operate in rainy and windy days. “The smoke was difficult to our eyes and our nostrils would be black from the soot particles we were breathing in every night,” Nelson added that they frequently had respiratory related ailments.

The smoke-free new solar lamp is also an alternative renewable energy solution reducing carbon dioxide emission that contributes to global warming. The Nagenahiru Foundation who initiated this solar lamp project two years ago said a lagoon fishing vessel used more than one litre of kerosene per night for lighting. There are 375 night fishermen in Maduganga– Madampa Lake area which would amount to roughly 400 litres of kerosene being used per night.

According to the available statistics, burning of 1.2 litres of kerosene emits about 3.14 kg of carbon dioxide. So the total emissions of 375 fishing vessels in the area alone will produce 1256 kg of carbon dioxide emissions every night. So this fishing fleet would emit a minimum of 408 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually to the atmosphere.

The project that was started with only a few lamps has gained popularity very soon. “The new lighting system is good for our pocket too,” Jayalath, a younger fisherman said. The cost of kerosene monthly accounted for about 30% of the income of these poor fishermen.

The Nagenahiru Foundation under founder president Lal Emmanuel has already distributed 250 of these units among the fishing community in the Ambalangoda Madampa Lagoon. This unit is powered by a rechargeable 12 Volt 4-6 Ampere seal lead acid battery. The lanterns use CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) lamps that consume low energy and provide an improved light lasting for about 30 hours. These affordable lanterns can be charged from the main electric grid or using solar panels, making the system cheaper than kerosene lanterns in the long term.

The Nagenahiru Foundation is targeting the inland fisheries community operating in lagoons, rivers and lakes. According to their estimates there are about 35,000 fishermen who engage in inland fisheries and this would be a cost-effective environmental-friendly solution. The Foundation which also does mangrove conservation and community work at Madampa lagoon won the International “One World Award” in 2008 for the solar lamp concept.

The lamp is the brainchild of young Sajeewa Emmanuel, Lal’s son. Sajeewa who has been experimenting with circuits since his schooldays got the idea of replacing the kerosene lamps used by the Madu-ganga Ja-kotu fisherman to catch prawn. Ja-kotu is made of interwoven bamboo panels consisting of two units of three interconnected chambers. The Ja-kotu system requires lighting seven kerosene lamps to attract prawns to the chambers.

It wasn’t easy to implement the solar lamp system for Ja-kotu. “There is a right intensity of light that prawns are attracted to and we had to experiment for months to fine tune the lamp,” said Sajeewa. He used an LED bulb system as prawns are attracted only to yellow or orange lighting. “Even the height of the lamp matters,” he said.

There are about 60 Ja–kotus at night in the Madu Ganga. A single lamp system could consume about 3.0 to 3.5 litres of kerosene every night and these could burn more than 180 to 210 litres of kerosene every month. During 325 nights per year ( approximate figure of how many nights worked per year ) they burn 58,500 to 60,250 litres of kerosene and emit more than 1836 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at the rate of 3.14 kg per 1.2 litre of kerosene oil burnt. In a bigger context it saves foreign exchange spent on importing kerosene.

The Nagenahiru Foundation has begun introducing this concept to other areas too. It is estimated that there are about 35,000 registered night fishermen engaged in night fishing in inland water bodies such as lagoons, estuaries and tanks and the Foundation aims to replace about 20,000 kerosene lanterns with the new CFL light system in the next five years.

The fishing communities in Lunugamwehera and Malala Lagoon are the next to benefit from this project.

NF: Awareness programmes for students and adults

The Nagenahiru Foundation (NF) won the national award offered by the Environmental Ministry for Environmental Education in 2009. Other than promoting solar lamps, they work on mangrove conservation and alternative livelihoods for communities and conduct education programmes at their centre located at the banks of Madampa lagoon.

Students from nearby schools are frequent visitors at the centre to learn about mangroves and wetland biodiversity. A raft was converted into a ‘Floating Classroom’ and the students get a chance to get close to the mangroves and study their special features like the breathing roots, adaptations of mangrove fruits etc closely.

The mangrove education programme conducted by the Nagenahiru centre is also open to adults. NF reaches adult villagers through the Grama Sevaka or Samurdi Agents. “The main aim is to emphasize the importance of mangroves,” said Bandula Jayanetti who is the Education Officer of Nagenahiru Education Centre. Mangroves play a very vital role in the sustainability of lagoon fishery and is also one of the best carbon trapping plant community that helps to remove Co2 from the atmosphere.

The Nagenahiru Centre at Madampa lagoon also has camping facilities for about 40 visitors who can get the opportunity to have a closer look at these mangroves and the lagoon biodiversity. Contact Nagenahiru Foundation for more information on – Published on SundayTimes 25.07.2008

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

Explore biodiversity with Kids – Oceans of Life

June 30, 2010

This is the part 6 of ‘Explore Biodiversity with Kids’ series dedicated to the International Year of Biodiversity. Puncha & Panchi – the curious siblings explore biodiversity around them..

It was a Sunday evening. Their parents had taken Puncha and Panchie to the beach. They were enjoying building a sand castle on the beach, when Panchie spotted a strange hole in the sand.

“Aiya.. Aiya.. Have you seen that hole..? Look!” Panchie shouted to her busy brother. She had also

spotted some movements and started running toward it.

“There is also something in it Aiya,” Panchie yelled to hasten her brother. Even though there was nobody to see, the stranger had left some tiny footprints all over the sand. After a careful search, Puncha
managed to spot the stranger who made the footprints.

It was a tiny crab that was very similar to the colour of the sand. Puncha was curious, so he had a closer look. “Hey Panchie – the crab has ten feet,” he whispered.

Puzzled by what the kids were looking at, father too came up to them. “Yes, all the crabs are called decapods because they have 10 feet. The first two have developed as claws and are called Cheliped,” explained father. “Crabs are also invertebrates that do not have a backbone, but have a protective shield around the body called the exo-skeleton”.

“Look… there is a different crab,” Puncha pointed at another odd looking crab that had retracted the body into its shell. Father picked it up in his hand. “This is a Hermit crab, Puncha”, father identified the little fellow still hiding in the shell.

“Hermit crabs do not have a hard shell. So it finds an empty sea shell and transforms it into a mobile home carrying it on its back. When they feel in danger, Hermit crabs retract its whole body into the shell”, father explained the mysterious behaviour of the Hermit. “When grown, the Hermit crab discards its old shell and finds a new home – another spacious sea shell!”

Goose Barnacles Goat’s Foot (Bim Thamburu)

Mussels on a log

Fascinated by the crabs found on the coast, the family kept on walking along the beach.

They came across a large log that had washed ashore last night. It was covered by Mussels attached tightly. There were hundreds of them. “Are they still alive Thaththa..?” Panchie questioned.

“Yes, they are still alive. Can you see the fleshy body part of this mollusc that lives in the sea..?” father asked, pointing to the mouth of the shells. These are also called Bivalves because they have a shell consisting of two asymmetrically rounded halves called valves.

They are mirror images of each other, joined at one edge by a flexible ligament called the hinge”, father said. With the help of Puncha and Panchie, father threw the log back into the sea, so that the mussels too could enjoy the sea.

Grass in the sand

They had also observed a vine like grass that spread around the sandy beach. Before questions came from the kids, father volunteered to explain what it was. “These are called Goat’s Foot or ‘Bim Thamburu’. Look at the shape of the leaves – it really looks similar to a Goat’s Foot,” father explained to the kids.

Hermit crab
A crab hole and footprints.

“Unlike other plants, these can grow under the effects of salt water. Goat’s Foot plants also help to keep the sand on the beach tight, so that other plants can start growing. Without these, it will take a longer time for vegetation to come out in the beaches”, father explained the importance of the plant.

The walk on the beach made both the kids thirsty, so they were thrilled to see an ice cream seller who came to the beach. Already there were a few kids, enjoying ice cream – but they had already thrown the polythene wrappers of the ice cream onto the beach.

“That’s bad,” commented father. “This polythene will be washed into the sea and it will not be good for the health of the oceans. Sometimes these might be eaten by the creatures of the oceans and they will also get sick. So never pollute the beaches or throw anything bad into the ocean,” father advised the kids.

Both Puncha and Panchie kept their wrappers safely, until they found a garbage bin to dump them.

The crab, mussels and Goat’s Foot plants are all parts of the coastal ecosystem, but there are more creatures that live in the oceans… Stay in touch with your friends – Puncha and Panchie for more news about them… published on FundayTimes – the Kids’ supplement issued with SundayTimes on 27.06.2010

Mangroves manhandled

June 12, 2010

Mangroves have been recognized as an important coastal ecosystem in Sri Lanka, but as the pressure of development grows more intense, the remaining patches of mangroves are being destroyed. Whose responsibility is it to protect them, asks Malaka Rodrigo


Douglas, a mangrove activist remembers how hard he tried to save a patch of mangroves in the Puttalam lagoon. As a group with political backing continued clearing the mangroves he went to the authorities seeking to halt the destruction.

The Police, the local Government Agent, Forest Department officers, all said it wasn’t their mandate to act. Some may have perhaps wondered why he was so bothered about some useless trees. But knowing the importance of mangroves, Douglas kept on fighting. Finally he found the correct authority – to his surprise that mangrove-rich land was under the purview of the Department of Transport.

Located adjacent to the Dutch Canal, during the colonial era when canals were used for transportation – this area too had been gazetted under the Transport Department. Even though the canals are no longer used for transportation, the ownership remained with them. “How come the fate of an important natural habitat like mangroves lies in the hands of the Department of Transportation?” asked an angry mangrove activist pointing out that we have only a handful of these important coastal habitats. “Not having an owning body or not having a guardian is just an encouragement for those who destroy the mangroves,” Douglas pointed out.

Prof. Mala Amarasinghe of the University of Kelaniya shared a similar experience. Working at NARA (National Aquatic Resources Agency) in the 1990s, she had tried to stop the destruction of a four-hectare mangrove patch in Kadolkele in Negombo. But those who had cleared the land for some commercial activity had the legal deeds and the environmentalists could only watch helplessly. Tracing back, Prof. Amarasinghe found that the land came under the ownership of Greater Colombo Economic Commission, GCEC, which has been assigned practically all state-owned “undeveloped” land for development.

Mangroves have not been considered worthy resources to be conserved, so they were taken as areas to be “developed,” Prof. Amarasinghe points out. Until recently, even the Forest Department did not regard them as forests and in a conflict situation, no particular line agency would come forward due to the inadequacies of their jurisdiction.

The destruction continues. Niyas, a mangrove activist from Kalpitiya says that though the mangrove patches may look intact from a distance, inside, they have been cut down for various purposes. The destruction mostly happens on weekends and on holidays when the wildlife and forest department officers are not around. “Large scale mangrove destruction is always done by outsiders who are backed by the political powers,” says Karunasena, president of the Rekawa fishermen association.
A large area of mangrove in the Rekawa lagoon in the south coast had been cut down by outside parties and the authorities did not act fast enough to save them. There is a need to raise awareness further at the grass-root level, he says.

Jayampathy Samarakoon, a consultant on Mangroves addressing an IUCN forum recently likened mangroves to an orphan of nature in Sri Lanka’s coastal landscape. He pointed out that the mangrove has a parent – Mother Nature, but no guardian, at present, as the state does not take responsibility for this complex common pool resource. “Like orphans without guardians are frequently abused, the mangroves are also severely abused.” The scars are there for all to see and the repercussions in term of lagoon fishery collapse and flooding will soon follow, he warned.

A mangrove nursery

The setting up of shrimp farms a decade ago devastated several mangrove lands. The inter-tidal zones where mangroves are abundant were seen as the best areas to set up prawn farms and mangroves were axed for the sake of the dollars prawn export was expected to bring to Sri Lanka. But shrimp farming collapsed and experts now found out the inter-tidal zone closer to the sea is not the best for prawn farming. Mangroves could have been saved, had there been proper advice at the inception.

The lack of clear ownership over most of the remaining lagoon ecosystems also poses other dangers. It is not only cutting of the mangroves, but also planting them. After the tsunami, mangroves had been projected as a good barrier against powerful sea waves as they have the ability to absorb the disruptive power of a wave. Millions of rupees were channelled to mangrove replanting projects, but how successful have they been?

“90% of the mangrove planting projects after the tsunami are a failure,” says Prof.L.P. Jayathissa of University of Ruhuna. Most of the planting has not been done with a scientific base, he feels. The selection of plants has to be done carefully so as not to disrupt the existing ecological balance, for example the species of mangroves in the wet zone does not suit the dry zone lagoons. Planting mangroves blocking the mouth of the lagoons, without proper scientific consultation could also cause sedimentation that causes the lagoons to fill- this could affect fishery. On the other hand, carefully planted mangroves can boost lagoon fishery, he adds.

The remaining mangrove forests in the North and East, which still is a considerable area will be under huge development pressure in this post war era. Plans are already being laid for shrimp farms and salterns that will axe a considerable portion of the remaining mangroves in these areas. The recent destruction of mangroves around Kokkilai lagoon which was also part of a sanctuary highlights this danger. The Kokkilai case also highlights that only having a guardian or a protector is not enough to save the mangroves. By the time the authorities act, parts of the mangrove have already been destroyed.

Under the project Green Dyke undertaken by University of Ruhuna Prof. Jayatissa organized a national symposium recently to share the latest findings on Sri Lankan researche on mangroves and bridge the gap between academia and grass roots activists. All highlighted the need to have a single body of experts to coordinate conservation of mangroves in Sri Lanka. One hopes the Mangrove Expert Committee being set up under the Ministry of Environment will truly make an impact in saving the remaining mangroves.

Mangroves in Sri Lanka

Mangroves are salt tolerant plants that grow in inter-tidal zones near the coast. These areas are exposed to air at low tide and submerged at high tide making the soil unstable and low in oxygen. But mangroves are well-adopted to such conditions and have a root system known as breathing roots that grow upwards above the soil surface to get the atmospheric oxygen.

Mangroves can extract fresh water from the saline water and some have the ability to remove excess salts through special salt glands on leaves. The mangrove embryos grow first through the seed coat, and then out through the fruit wall while still attached to the parent plant which enables them to grow easily in hostile conditions.

Mangroves in Sri Lanka are composed of 20 species of true mangroves and 24 species of mangrove associates which is 1/3 of all mangrove species in world. The most extensive mangroves occur in the Puttalam – Kalpitiya area and the estuaries of the Eastern province.

Over-exploitation, habitat destruction, shrimp farms, pollution and invasive species threaten the remaining patches of mangroves in the island. published on SundayTimes on 13.06.2010. This has been done under the aegis of media fellowship by Centre for Science and Environment – India.

Corals under bleach attack

May 16, 2010
Marine scientists stress the need to monitor our reefs in the East Coast
The International Day of Biological Diversity falls next Saturday, May 22. With the UN’s latest Global Biodiversity Outlook report highlighting corals as the species most at risk, marine specialists are warning that corals in Sri Lanka face a new threat – Malaka Rodrigo reports
Have you taken a shower in the middle of the day these past few months and winced at the heat of the water gushing through in the first few minutes? The intense heat is not just affecting us, it is affecting corals – the delicate organisms in the sea that are exposed to the sun all day long.“We have seen early signs of coral bleaching in the East Coast recently,” says Prasanna Weerakkodi, a marine environmentalist and regular diver who showed us a series of photos taken during a dive two weeks ago near Coral Island and Pigeon Island. The corals are pale in colour or have turned completely white. Some corals are deep purple and that too is an early sign of bleaching, he says, warning that about 50% – 60% of the corals in Pigeon Island and nearby Coral Island are partially bleached while about 5% are completely dead.

Bleached corals on Coral Island.(Pix by Sajith Subhashana)

Coral reefs are known as rainforests of the ocean considering their rich biodiversity and are the breeding grounds of many fish. Corals in Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Galle, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa are reportedly being affected according to other divers.

Coral bleaching occurs when coral polyps, the organisms that build corals, shed the algae (zooxanthellae) that gives them their colour. These tiny algae live in harmony with the corals and 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. Our corals show signs of entering into the first stage of such a bleaching explains Mr. Weerakkodi.

Coral scientists believe warming waters are the most likely cause of these bleaching events. The Indian Ocean experienced its worst coral bleaching in 1998 due to a warm oceanic current. The Sea Surface Temperature (SST) of some parts of the Indian Ocean had gone up due to the La Nina climatic phenomenon at that time and resulted 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 in the East Coast escaped the 1998 coral bleaching.

According to recent Sea Surface Temperature data, it is now around 32 C where the normal average temperature should be around 28 C. This increase could have triggered the bleaching. A regional warning of a possible coral bleaching has been issued. Sri Lankan marine biologists are also in touch with their Maldivian colleagues.

If the sea’s temperature goes down, or cool upswells come to the rescue, healthy corals also have the ability to recover. “It is too early to say whether this will develop into a full-scale coral bleaching event as happened in 1998. But it is important to monitor the phenomenon,” Mr. Weerakkodi pointed out.

Marine biologist for the National Aquatic Resources Research & Development Agency (NARA) Arjan Rajasuriya, recently reported some dying corals in reefs near Galle. After the severe bleaching of 1998, corals in many areas in Sri Lanka showed temporary bleaching during the months of April/May/June when temperatures are high. Some corals die, but others recover after the conditions return to normalcy. However, if the warm conditions prevail for long, it could be deadly. Arjan recalls the coral bleaching in 1998 had occurred during April/May and within a few weeks it sealed the fate of many coral reefs like those in Hikkaduwa.

Nishan Perera, another marine specialist, who was diving at Trincomalee a few weeks ago, verified the bleaching of corals and reported severe bleaching in the Dutch Bay area. This year the early part of the monsoon was a bit slack which might have contributed to this situation, he feels. “If conditions become normal soon it should not be a problem, but otherwise there can be some coral mortality,” he says.

Can anything be done? “Keeping the corals healthy is the only way to fight this global phenomenon,” says the NARA officer. Corals that are not healthy lose the ability to adapt to changes in their environment. Frequent fishing, pollution from land-based sources, dynamiting reefs, and sedimentation are other threats to the reef ecosystem which reduce their ability to withstand a catastrophe like bleaching.

Visible bleaching at Pigeon Island

Ocean Acidification is the latest threat added to this list. Acidification is a phenomenon linked to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean reacts with the water to form carbonic acid. Many oceanic ecosystems such as coral reefs are adapted to a narrow range of pH levels and increases in these levels can be catastrophic.

Marine experts also say it is important to pay more attention to the corals in the East coast. “The West coast is experiencing the monsoon these days which will cool the seas a little, while regular cloud cover will also reduce the heat,” Arjan says. But the East coast is not so fortunate and is also experiencing new threats. Pollution and over-fishing were not problems earlier as the Eastern and Northern seas were restricted due to security reasons, but this is changing after the war and over-visitation is already causing problems to fragile marine national parks like Pigeon Island.

Save the wrecks

On May 2, the Sunday Times reported a racket involving the removal of scrap from ship wrecks off the Eastern seas. NARA’s Arjan Rajasuriya points out the wrecks are now jungles of coral and have become a spawning ground for fish.

Destroying them will destroy budding corals as well as harm the fisheries industry. “This is like killing the hen that lays the golden eggs,” said Arjan highlighting the value of these wrecks. They could even be a tourist attraction, so keep them intact, appeals the marine biologist.

Corals heading towards rapid extinction

The Global Biodiversity Outlook report backed by IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) data shows coral species are heading most rapidly towards extinction, while Amphibians are on average the group most threatened.

According to the Red List Index shown in the graph, a value of 1.0 indicates that all species in a group would be considered as being of Least Concern (not expected to become extinct in the near future) and a value of 0 would indicate that all species in a group have become extinct.

Published on SundayTimes on 16.05.2010