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Lakshadweep's coral reefs struggle for existence

Press Trust of India

8th March 2004

Five years ago the Lakshadweep archipelago and Andaman and Nicobar Islands off the Indian coast boasted of the most pristine coral reefs and a unique biodiversity in the world. Today, they make a brave bid to survive!

They face the risk of disappearance, not only at the hands of natural phenomena like wave action and global warming which is raising sea levels, but also stand threatened by illegal coral mining, over fishing, ornamental fish collection and pollution.

Activities like coral mining, dredging of navigational channels, unsustainable fishing practices, coastal development as also blasting of corals to create navigational channels over the years has led to vast damage of rich biodiversity, says Dr Swayam Prabha Das of the World Wide Fund for nature that is involved in a government-funded conservation project at the isles, described as "Northern Indian ocean hotspot".

Pollution from land and sea, over-collection of fishes, particularly bait fishes, corals and shells and coral mining are leading to further problems of coastal erosion, says Dr Das observing, the problem is further compounded by pressures of human population.

Passenger and cargo ships dumping untreated waste into sea around the islands and discharging the waste oil cause severe pollution, in addition to mounds of garbage and sewage disposal at the hands of increasing number of tourists.

High demands of housing and food in the islands, which has very high population density -- over 2000 per sq km, apart from requirements of coconut and fisheries based economy are posing serious threat to the lands, lagoons and sea.

The Lakshadweep archipelago comprises 12 coral atolls with 36 islands and five submerged banks. The total area of the islands is 32 square kilometres, and is surrounded by 4,200 km of lagoon, raised reefs and banks. The population on 10 inhabited islands ranges from 100 on Bitra to 10,000 on Kavaratti, the largest island.

Among them, Kadmat Island is the most famous for its exquisite corals while Pitti Island is home to some rare avian species and is a designated bird sanctuary.

In 1998, the el nino effect caused mass bleaching of the corals in and around Lakshdweep isles destroying as much as 87 per cent of the live coral cover. It was almost 90 per cent in Kadmat Island, says a WWF report.

Under such circumstances, human activity and unsustainable economic practices need to be regulated and monitored very closely lest a pristine eco-system would be destroyed forever, warns Dr Das.

Under the two year project, which WWF took up early last year, the organisation is to study and assess the current status of the ecosystem as also coral reefs from different perspectives and establish an institutional coral reef monitoring mechanism.

According to Das, WWF has proposed to identify two probable areas that are rich in coral reefs like Kadmat Island, a pristine island with Pitti bird sanctuary, and resorts like Bangaram to set up benchmarks for reef monitoring.

Das, however, refuses to quantify the findings of the team. The absence of an authentic baseline in this regard is posing a problem, she says and adds, the "reefs have a good power of regeneration and can replenish."

How effective this capability is in the face of the potential threats will take some more time, she says.

In a bid to highlight the threats facing the archipelagos and the remedial measures that can be undertaken, the WWF and the Society for Indian Ocean Studies has organised a seminar on March 12 titled "Islands and Associated Ecosystems -- Strategies for Development and Conservation."