A gulf of trouble for Mannar, India’s climate change hotspot (Hindustan Times, 29th November)

By Kumkum Dasgupta for Hindustan Times, 29th November

The 100-year-old Pamban Bridge connects the Indian mainland with the temple town of Rameswaram. The 2,340-metre-long bridge, India’s first sea bridge, is a big tourist attraction. It is not rare to find people parking their vehicles on the bridge and clicking selfies with their families and friends; the green-blue Indian Ocean, the coconut-tree lined shoreline and fishing boats make for a picture-perfect backdrop.

On one side of the bridge is Palk Bay and on the other is Gulf of Mannar (GoM). Located on the southeastern tip of the subcontinent, the GoM is an ecological paradise. It is home to over 4,223 species of flora and fauna, making it one of the richest coastal regions in the world.

Thanks to this ecological diversity, the gulf harbours over 1,000 species of fish and the coastline is home to 9.15 lakh fisherfolk, of which 2.6 lakh are engaged in fishing. Tamil Nadu ranks third in marine fish production in India and its annual catch was 6,65,000 tonnes in 2014.

Though the Gulf of Mannar was declared a marine biosphere reserve in 2002, the first of its kind in south and Southeast Asia, it is still under severe threat thanks to over-harvesting of fishery resources, destruction of habitats and the breeding grounds of fish, industrial pollution (nearly 30 industries are located along the coast of GoM); trade in highly endangered marine organisms, dynamite fishing and use of prohibited fishing gears by fisherfolk.

One of the biggest threats is from the 3,200 mechanised and 1,100 non-mechanised boats that enter the waters of the GoM every day and indulge in bottom trawling that scoops up everything from the ocean floor including the species/marine treasures like corals, sponges and sea grasses.

“The problem in GoM is that there is no regulation and management of fish catches… The marine fisheries regulation bill is pending for the last 10 years,” says an official of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers.

“We are blamed for over-fishing. But it’s the trawlers that take away everything… We are forced to go towards Sri Lanka and very often are arrested by their navy,” Karl Marx, a young fisherman, told HT despondently. “But what’s the point of complaining… These trawlers are owned by big people sitting in Chennai.”

Climate change, a clear and present danger

If over-fishing and destruction of marine resources is one aspect of the problem that is dogging the GoM area, climate change is the other big challenge. While much more research needs to be conducted on its impact on the area, there are some tell-tale signs that indicate changes are afoot.

“There has been no detailed study on the effect of climate change on this belt but we are planning to commission one soon because we are witnessing some changes that could be attributed to climate change,” Deepak S Bilgi, wildlife warden, GoM Marine National Park told HT.

“Take for example, shoreline erosion. We have noticed that the area of Van Island, one of the 21 uninhabited islands of GoM, has shrunk by 2-3 ha.” Shoreline erosion has been linked to climate change.

Coral bleaching, which can also be linked to rising sea temperature, is also a cause of concern.

“Sea surface temperature has increased by about 0.3 degrees in the last 50 years; second, coral disease and bleaching frequency has increased,” E Vivekananda, retired scientist of Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), who has worked in the GoM, told HT.

The destruction of coral reefs will have a severe impact on the livelihood of fisherfolk because they are homes and nursery grounds to many fish species.

Across the world, coral bleaching is on the rise. A recent statement by the International Society for Reef Studies on the impact of climate change on coral reefs said the combination of increasing ocean temperatures, acidification, and more local pressure such as pollution and over-fishing is causing cumulative damage to coral reefs.

“The targets being proposed for Paris will not reduce greenhouse gas emission nor limit temperature rise to the degree required to prevent widespread coral reef decline in the future,” it warned.

Dr TS Dange, director, Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust, says that any drop in the quantum of rainfall due to climate change could also impact the area. “Ocean fauna extracts salt from sea and forms corals. This keeps the CO2 levels down. But if there is less rain, the salt content will go up and this may impact some corals and also mangroves, which protects our shoreline.”

What is happening in Gulf of Mannar is just symptomatic of the challenges that India’s long coastline, one of the most populated in the world, is facing. The repercussions of such destruction of natural barriers and flora and fauna coupled with climate change are bound to have long-term ecological, human and political ramifications on the country.

“India’s beaches are disappearing because the sea is encroaching,” said Tamil Nadu-based Gilbert Rodrigo, a member of National Fishworkers’ Forum. “In some places, the government has taken dumping of boulders as a solution but this is creating a disaster than solving the problem.”

Rodrigo added that over the years, thanks to changes in weather patterns, the type, size and location of fish available have changed. “Fisherfolk today are often at a loss to understand this change. Since they don’t know which fish would be available where, they carry eight different types of nets, increasing their costs.”

In the documentary Sea of Change, Traditional Fishworkers’ Perception of Climate Change, fisherfolk talk about a marked decrease in fish catch, erosion of beaches and increased frequency and intensity of storms.

Fish catch statistics reflect this change. As per estimates released by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) in 2014, marine fish catch was at 3.56 million tonnes, as compared to 3.78 million tonnes of marine fish recorded during 2013. The institute attributed the drop to pollution in the coastal waters and changes in temperature in the ocean climate.

For U Arulanantham, the state coordinator of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, told HT that climate change is destroying the traditional knowledge base of fishermen because the sea current are not following the known pattern and that is impacting fish movement. “Earlier, they would know which species they will get at which spot. Now they are at a loss.”

“People talk about climate change but the more pressing problem is land use change which itself is a cause of climate change… In the last 25 years in Tamil Nadu, we have seen massive urbanisation/built up space (resorts, mining, ports) along the coast. All this drastically alters the nature of the coast… Estuaries, mangroves, sea grass bed and sand dunes and if these are disturbed then the natural shock absorbers will not withstand the onslaught of extreme weather events,” writer-activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has worked on coastal issues for the last 20 years, told HT.

Climate change, he added, will lead to extreme intensity of extreme weather events and we need to adapt fast. “The key resource for adaptation is natural infrastructure. A cyclone can lead to ingress of sea water but if there are sand dunes then they can replenish groundwater and restore the aquifers… But we are destroying them.”