Human beings aren’t insignificant, we’re only small in the vastness of this planet. We have the intelligence and capability to protect and nurture yet our arrogance outshines, thus affecting the environment severely. This realisation struck hard during a screening of a documentary about our world’s oceans, in a theatre, last week.
We’ve managed to damage coral reefs that have existed for 4,000 years. But on this World Oceans Day, we look at a few who have made their entire lives about saving these very water bodies and conserving what’s left —they’ve decided to befriend one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world in the form of artificial reefs.
Members of the public and the government are creating platforms underwater with a threefold purpose — to preserve and conserve species of marine life, boost tourism through water activities and increase the numbers of native species thereby supporting fishing communities.
What are artificial reefs?
Engineered structures using various materials to provide a safe home to millions of creatures in the sea, by definition, is an artificial reef. For the last eight years, people like Aravind Tharunsri, director of Temple Advantures, Puducherry, have been working hard towards creating these structures. He says, “Tamil Nadu’s coast has negligible natural coral reefs so we create manmade ones for the purposes mentioned above.”
Scientist Rohan Arthur, with the Nature Conservation Foundation, explains, “Coral reefs are biogenic structures, similar to forests. They create a niche for plants and animals to survive and have the highest diversity in terms of ecosystems. They’re mostly found in tropics, 30 degrees Celsius above and below the equator. Since corals are symbiotic, they have a relationship with algae, which photosynthesises for them, thus providing nutrition. So such reefs require a certain amount of light and moderate temperature.” The best reefs are along the islands of Lakshadweep and Andaman, while smaller clusters can be found in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka.
Why is TN unsuitable for natural reefs?
“India’s coastline doesn’t have too many corals because it has a lot of river influences: freshwater and sedimentation from rivers like the Ganges enter the Bay of Bengal and disturb the reefs in Tamil Nadu — we actually have diverse reef systems in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait but heavy pressure from many sources have disrupted these,” says Rohan. History reports that reefs in the state have been constantly used by humans, right from pearl fishing centuries ago to cement mining of the coral. “Much of it has stopped but pollution, overfishing and natural causes like sedimentation prevent the growth of natural reefs,” he adds.
Artificial reefs in the state
“Both the government and we have been constructing reefs since 2010 and the success rate has been 100 per cent. First, we collect samples of the water and sediment to check if the location we’ve picked are conducive to growth of reefs and other marine species. Then, we take various materials by boat to the site and dump them onto the sea bed,” says Aravind Tharunsri.
How it helps fishing communities in TN
It was recently announced by the State government that artificial reefs are to be constructed at the mouth of Pulicat lake as well. “Since we’re creating such platforms for fish cultivation, it will increase the numbers among indigenous breeds — it must be noted that we won’t culturing or rearing any species artificially.” He goes on to elucidate, “Near-coast fishing is the bread and butter for artisanal fishermen but it has been reduced for various reason. They use catamarans and ply between 3-4 nautical miles but if we can breed more species closer to the shore like at Pulicat, it will surely boost income for the fishing communities,” says Dr. Sameeran to which Aravind agrees. “The more you encourage fisher-folk, the more they’ll support the environment. If an average fisherman travel 12 kilometres into the ocean, reefs can enable them to travel only 5 km for fish. Initially, trawlers used to disturb the reef formations underwater but now that the fishermen understand its benefits and come forth to help us by submerging coconut fronds or tree branches into the reefs.”
WHAT CAN BE USED TO CREATE SUCH REEFS
“Pretty much anything and everything,” says Aravind Tharunsri, director of Temple Advantures
CEMENT BLOCKS: The government dumps around 200 tonnes of huge cement blocks that weigh at least 700-900 kilograms each, at a chosen site. The blocks are porous in nature and have holes that allow plants and animals to adapt to them.
ARMY WASTE: tanks, jeeps, airplanes, train coaches and containers make for great reefs. In Kerala, a ship has been dropped specifically for scuba diving while shipwrecks from the second World War have made this activity popular off the coast of Sri Lanka.
ROCKS AND VEHICLES: “Since cement blocks work out too expensive for us, we use rocks that weight 30-40 kilos each that we find by the road. We personally dive into the ocean and build a structure in any shape of our choice, which will be supported by using iron rods,” explains Aravind. His team and he have also used two truck, 13 bikes and three cars to create artificial reefs. “Of course, we remove all glass, plastic or rubber parts and the paint, oil and engine from the vehicles, so that they don’t damage the ocean or creatures,” he adds.
Sea Horse; Dr GS Sameeran
THEY HELP BOOST TOURISM: OFFICIAL
Dr GS Sameeran, Director of the Tamil Nadu Fisheries department, says how such sunken reefs have become a great attraction for scuba divers in several places across the country. “As a trial, we trained youth from various fishing communities in India in other water sports like kayaking, kite and wind surfing so that it can create a livelihood for them plus encourage tourism. It was met with so much enthusiasm. I remember a young man named Sekar Pichai, who was introduced to surfing a few years ago through this program. Today, he is a national-level sportsman! Coincidentally, just recently, we began training 48 youngsters in Chennai too,” he narrates. Aravind says that the number of tourists coming to dive in Puducherry has increased too, ever since the number of reefs have. “The sediment here is rich so millions of species have made the artificial reefs home. Groupers that are as long as five feet, sting rays, barracudas, angel fish, the rare flute fish, feather corals and even whale sharks can be found in our waters today.” But isn’t a spurt in tourism harmful for the environment? “This is a misconception; most people think that fish disappear or die because of humans but they don’t because they assume you’re one of them when you’re in the water. As long as you don’t disturb them and are a responsible citizen, it’ll be all right,” he says.
Do they help with marine conservation and preservation?
One of the biggest threats that the entire planet faces today is plastic pollution — this was the theme for Environment day (June 5) and today’s theme as well. “People dumping plastic intentionally into the seas has reduced but we dump waste at home or on the road. During rains, the water picks up all this junk and flows into the ocean. Also, fishing nets get caught in reefs or around animals and damage marine life but there’s nothing we can do about it,” shares Aravind.
“It’s true, plastic is becoming more and more of a problem; not just bags or bottles but micro-plastics found in a range of products,” says Rohan adding, “The damage it is causing is difficult to quantify but almost no study in India has been conducted about such marine debris. It is something we need to be concerned about — our oceans are not dumping yards. Moreover, toxic waste affects marine life, which we end up consuming, so it’ll bite us back if we don’t take precautions.” In addition, the scientist’s study over the past few years has shown how climate change has had dramatic impacts over the natural reefs — much of this decline is because of increasing sea surface temperatures and the wide-spread mortalities that it causes.
Artificial reefs are one among a range of engineering solutions to uplift the deteriorating life below water. Since fish are attracted to any kind of structure; they aggregate at reefs, thereby multiplying rapidly. In terms of conservation, it is a valuable experiment, says Rohan, but he has his doubts. “Artificial reefs are a far cry from natural ones. Re-growing coral is not as easy as rainforest reforestation. So far, only a few fast-growing corals have been experimented with but this is a very expensive technique. Whether they can survive is doubtful, so will the result be fully functional or only a caricature?” he questions. It costs the same amount of time, money and effort to prevent the problems that are damaging the environment instead of finding solutions like reefs, is his opinion. “It’s the same whether you work towards artificial reef construction or solving the problem of why natural reefs deteriorated in the first place. Personally, I feel if you take away or reduce manmade disturbances, corals can recover on their own. So artificial reefs are just a quick fix, which may give people more rope to damage the inherent system — anything artificial should be a last resort, not the first one,” he condemns.