The Battle To Save Our Reefs
By Dinidu de Alwis
When the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 struck the southern and eastern coastal areas of Sri Lanka, some parts of the coastal belt felt the impact and the devastation of the tsunami less than the others. Experts and laymen alike cited one reason as to why the deadly waves hit the shore with a lesser force — the coral reefs.
The reefs act as a natural barrier to slow down the waves, tsunami or otherwise, before they reach the shore. This is the reason why areas such as Polhena have bathing spots where the waves gently kiss the surface of the sand, when a mere few hundred meters away the waves crash onto the shore with a thunderous force.
Coral reefs are a natural phenomena created by the secretions of small sea creatures called Polyps. Fondly called the rainforests of the sea, coral reefs provide a safe habitat for numerous sea-dwelling life forms and play the role of the home for a vast and often diverse eco system.
One of the most popular and scenic coral reefs of Sri Lanka existed in the southern coastal belt, along the Hikkaduwa area. Following nudges and policy interventions by the ruling governments through the years, the coral reefs of Hikkaduwa have become a popular and much sought after tourist attraction for both local and foreign travellers alike. But the outlook for the future for the reef seems as grim as the current colour that the once vibrant reefs displayed.
Veteran diver and a vocal and well known activist for coral conservation, Somadasa de Silva says that for reasons ranging from natural forces, to man made interventions, the future of the reefs is at risk. According to him, the use of nets for fishing over the coral reefs has contributed largely to the demise of the coral reefs. The mounting of the nets using metal rods, and the tangling of the nets onto the delicate reef itself, damages the structure of the corals on the reef.
“The boats which either hit the sea to fish, or the boats which take tourists out to the sea to show them the beauty, also contribute to the damage” he adds. Be it the physical damage caused to the reef by the vessels, or the long term biological and chemical damage caused by trash and oil which are released, the reef remains under threat.
Some changes have happened over time though. The once practiced technique of using dynamite or other explosives for fishing, which sent shock waves underwater to kill the fish, has now been declared illegal. With the strict implementation of the law, the damage that the explosive shock wave has on the reef has been removed. “People also have become more conscious about their actions. Where once people took a piece of coral home with them as memorabilia, now the take memories and photos” says de Silva and points out how education on the importance of the reef has helped safeguard the reef to a certain extent.
Conservation attempts are also in place. De Silva is a part of a larger group of people and organisations who work to rebuild the coral reef by helping the reef to grow. The reef, which saw over 80% of it’s corals die due to freak weather conditions in 1998, was hit hard by the changes in water temperature due to the El Nino phenomenon. While some reefs such as Thalpe and Ahangama almost vanished, some managed to cling on to dear life.
With the expected tourism boom starting from next year, de Silva points out the importance of the reef as an attraction which can be harnessed as a financial opportunity. “The place is well known by local and foreign tourists, and many people in the area make a living by direct or indirect survival on the coral reef”, this however, comes with a warning from the coral master — “If this is to be sustained, we need to protect the reef. And fast.” www.perambara.org