As far as the eye could see in the faint light of daybreak, corals, big and small, were strewn amid puddles of seawater. At first glance, the beach near Narara Reef, in the Marine National Park (MNP) in the Gulf of Kutch (GoK), resembled a street after a riot.
The sea seemed to have receded to the horizon, a result of the recurrent tidal ebb and flow. It is a natural phenomenon that occurs due to the gravitational pull between the moon, sun and earth, creating a unique intertidal ecosystem for coral reefs, seagrass and innumerable denizens of the sea to flourish.
Wading through Narara Reef, close to the coast of Jamnagar, in ankle-deep seawater on a breezy January morning was like walking on a bed of eggshells, only these were corals, dead and alive. A forest department guide instructed us to wear canvas shoes to avoid nicks and cuts. I trod gingerly to avoid large formations of live corals. After walking for a few minutes, we found a pool filled with corals. There were two brain corals—so named because they resemble a human brain—almost a foot in diameter, one sandy and the other dark green in colour.
There were many groups of corals lying like monks deep in meditation. Most of them are named after the things they resemble, like the moon or a finger or a plate or a bowl. In still waters, the moon coral seemed to resemble the surface of the moon—grainy, grey and white. The plate and bowl corals were like a huge serving dish and bowl, pale chocolate brown and grey, respectively.
There were also groups of starfish, snails, crabs, sponges and other invertebrates.
An octopus scurried past our feet through a maze of algae, emitting dark ink, probably scared by our intrusion. A tiny starfish, a pale shade of pink, played hide and seek among bright orange-coloured sponges. The wide-eyed pufferfish tried to camouflage itself. Further down, we spotted a sea slug—a jelly mass, which can easily fit into a human hand—and a loofah-like sea anemone.
As the water returned, a large number of migratory waders flocked to the shoreline. Crab-plovers, sand plovers, ruddy turnstones, oystercatchers and various species of sandpipers hurried to finish off their morning meals before the surf rolled in to cover the reef bed.
But as we watched nature up close, struck by wonder and excitement, a tinge of sadness washed over us. For the decay was unmistakable. Dead corals outnumbered the live ones; depleting mangrove cover, beach erosion and the intrusion of special economic zones (ports, oil pipelines, industries, etc.) were corroding the vast seabed, affecting the lives of millions of tiny creatures and microorganisms.
Gujarat has the longest coastline (approximately 1,915km) in India. It also has two gulfs—the Gulf of Kutch and the Gulf of Khambhat. The Marine National Park and the Marine Sanctuary, India’s first marine reserve, are located in fragmented zones covering the districts of Jamnagar, Dwarka and Morbi along the southern part of the GoK. The Marine Sanctuary, which was notified in 1980 to protect two major ecosystems, mangroves and corals, has a total designated area of 458 sq. km. An additional 162 sq. km was notified as a Marine National Park in 1982 in the intertidal region along the coast that has 42 islands scattered between Okha and Navlakhi. In all, the GoK is around 7,350 sq. km.
According to estimates by researchers, the GoK is home to around 1,500 marine and coastal species. Within the MNP itself, the diversity is astonishing—there are 49 species of hard corals, 23 species of soft corals, 70 species of sponges, 421 species of fish, 27 species of prawns, 30 species of crabs, 199 species of molluscs, 16 species of echinoderms, 172 species of birds, three species of sea mammals, six species of mangroves, and three species of sea turtles, 108 species of brown, green and red algae. And these are just the recorded ones.
Shyamal Tikadar, MNP director, explains that new research is throwing up new species, so further discoveries are possible in the coming years. “There may be more species thriving in this ecosystem which haven’t got our attention yet,” he says.
Marine biologists often refer to coral reefs as marine oases or underwater rainforests. In the GoK, the coral reefs provide goods and services valued at approximately Rs220 crore per year says a 2010 study by the Gujarat Ecology Commission, Gandhinagar, done in collaboration with the Centre for Environment and Social Concerns, Ahmedabad, Cambridge University, UK, and Delhi university, among others. The study estimates the value of coral reefs in a 1 sq. km area in the GoK at about Rs79.5 lakh a year.
“When I was a child, there were many sandy beaches along this coast. Now it’s more of slippery mud than sand,” says a local conservationist, who does not want to be identified. “Beaches are disappearing from our coastline because excessive dredging by ports and other industries is changing the natural movement of sand along the coast.”
Moreover, untreated effluents from industries along the coast are polluting the water, straining the relationship between zooxanthellae, a photosynthetic algae, and what are known as reef-building corals. While the corals provide a safe environment and compounds to the algae for photosynthesis, the algae provides the products of photosynthesis, such as oxygen, that the corals use to create calcium carbonate for their own growth.
My guide in Lakhu, a coral reef in the MNP near Positra village, an hour’s drive from Dwarka, pointed us to a sea anemone and explained that anemone shrimp reside in the tentacles of sea anemones and feed off leftover food from the host. He also told us about a species of sea anemone which attaches itself to the shell of a snail to travel under water.
Scientists worry, though, that time may be running out. Coral reefs are suffering alarming erosion owing to rapid industrialization. Naturally, then, the reefs near areas with high population densities are worse off.
As we continued our tour of the MNP and spoke to environmentalists from the state, two questions popped up: Why does marine life remain out of the conservation spotlight, even though India has a 7,000km-plus coastline? And why are marine reserves not as popular as tiger reserves?
Marine conservation, in fact, seems to be neglected across the world—marine scientists say we know more about the surface of Mars. Although 70% of our oxygen comes from the plants in oceans, we have still not mapped the ocean floor in detail. We do know, however, that our oceans and seas are choking with plastic and other man-made wastes. Last year, the UN Environment Programme estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic trash are dumped into seas every year and marine scientists concur that every bit of it is still present on the ocean floor.
“We have a very fluid and dynamic ecosystem. Land-based conservation practices are irrelevant in this closed water-based ecosystem where erosion and accretion is a continuous process,” says Tikadar. The national park and sanctuary area combined is less than 10% of the GoK, he points out; the forest department’s jurisdiction and intervention is limited to this minuscule area.
“The gulf is strategic to a number of industries as well as defence forces. It is also an important export-import hub and, therefore, it’s a constant challenge to balance environmental and developmental priorities,” says Tikadar. The threat to the area, he adds, is both natural and anthropogenic, so all agencies and stakeholders need to come together and chart out a road map for conservation.
As Nilanjana Biswas, author of the 2009 report “The Gulf Of Kutch Marine National Park And Sanctuary: A Case Study”, puts it: “Every protected area in the country has its own conservation management plan, and there is one each for the MNP and the Marine Sanctuary, but mere implementation does not protect the region from the depredations of industrialization. One of the main reasons for depredations of the environment is the overlapping jurisdiction of various government regulatory bodies and the absence of clear physical and legal boundaries.”
“Anthropogenic threats like industrial development (including ports/harbours, ship-breaking yards, salt pans, thermal power stations, petro refineries, underwater oil pipelines, cement industries, soda- ash industries and fertilizer units) along the southern coast of GoK is a prime concern, followed by increasing human inhabitation and urbanization in vicinity of the coast,” states a 2014 compendium by the Marine National Park titled Scientific Insight Into Ecosystems of Marine National Park And Sanctuary: A Research Compilation.
The compendium adds: “Increasing container traffic in the Gulf has raised concern for possible collision of vessels, oil spills and subsequent damage to coral reefs.”
In 2015, an Ecosystem Health Report Card for the MNP by the Gujarat Ecology Commission identified pollution, overfishing and erosion as leading factors in the degradation of the marine habitat. The policies of the state government, however, continue to be focused largely on industrialization.
We sailed in the Gulf waters to Pirotan, Paga and Bhaidar—small islets off the southern coast of GoK that are rich in coral reefs and migratory birds. When the tide was low, we could see heavy sediment deposits choking the coral reefs across the shoreline of all three islands.
We spotted green sea turtles at Paga Island. A long line of fishing nets seemed to have obstructed their return to the sea. Along with the turtles, stranded on the sediment-coated reef was a baby reef shark struggling to stay alive.
Fishing is permitted within the sanctuary—there are about 50,000 private fishing boats in the area, apart from giant trawlers. The methods used remain questionable, says Biswas. “Fishermen routinely dislodge rocks and dead coral boulders to find animals and to fix fishing nets under rocks.”
Surveillance is difficult. The forest department is understaffed and there are only four boats to keep watch.
Anchoring fishing boats on the reef area is a common practice, and plays a role in increased sediment load. Rocks and dead coral boulders support fauna like sponges, mollusca, crustaceans, echinoderms and tunicates.
Such practices have, in fact, also been blamed for the decline in the GoK’s pearl oyster population. That’s not all. The increased sediment load also affects the growth of seagrass, which provides a grazing habitat to sea turtles and dugongs—these too are declining in number.
Unfortunately, very little is known about the life span or growth of corals, which die when exposed to air.
With each passing year, however, the threat of climate change becomes more obviously alarming. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says ocean warming and acidification is the greatest hidden challenge of our generation. “The crucial role that the ocean plays in climate regulation as the major heat, carbon and water reservoirs of the world is not generally recognized or appreciated by the public or policymakers,” states an IUCN report, “Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Scale, Effects And Consequences” (2016).
So it is heartening to see that in the seabed at Lakhu in Positra, the forest department has been trying to protect vast coral beds by creating small pools of seawater and marking each coral to track its growth. Tikadar is also looking at other options for coral restoration like the Biorock technology, a patented method based on mineral accretion technology, invented by marine biologists Wolf Hilbertz and Tom Goreau. Researchers from the Zoological Society of India (ZSI) have conducted experiments in the area by mapping coral regrowth. In 2015, the ZSI successfully restored a coral reef measuring 1 sq. km in the MNP by transporting live corals from the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park in Tamil Nadu.
Small efforts have been made over the past few years, select species of corals and mangroves have been restored by the forest department and the National Coastal Zone Management Authority, in coordination with the State Coastal Zone Management Authority, in the districts of Kutch and Jamnagar, through the World Bank-funded Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project (ICZMP). According to World Bank data, 5,200 hectares of mangroves have been planted to strengthen the Kutch mangroves ecosystem.
The ICZMP, scheduled to wind up by December, plans to set up a national centre for marine biodiversity in Dwarka to build baseline ecological information and carry out higher order research in marine and deep-sea biodiversity. At the Okha Madhi beach near Dwarka, the forest department is also running a turtle hatchery since nesting beaches face erosion. A marine aquarium aimed at raising awareness is also nearing completion.
Much more needs to be plumbed, however.