Although there is currently relatively little policy-level understanding about the need to protect the ecological wealth and diversity of the Indian Ocean, one of the important strategies involved in doing so effectively is to set aside sections of the sea and coast – legally declaring them marine protected areas (MPAs). An MPA typically spans an area that covers the coastal belt and its ecology, whether wetland, mangroves or beaches, and extending into the deeper ocean. Most MPAs are places of great biodiversity, though their development also has direct impact on the livelihoods and cultures of small-scale, traditional fishing and coastal communities. Therefore, such communities are an integral partner for any MPA effort to be successful.
Over time, various strategies have been employed to safeguard the Southasian seas. When compared to more specific strategies, such as those aimed at restoration of mangroves and corals, MPAs, which are all-encompassing in their conservation scope, have proven to be far more successful. MPAs are set up with various objectives, which broadly include protecting threatened species, or safeguarding fragile habitats critical for the survival of many species, including those that are economically important. Such an approach can do much to ensure the long-term viability of marine resources and the preservation of genetic diversity of species and ecosystems. MPAs can allow overfished populations to recover both in terms of stock and size, thereby ensuring sustainable fish harvests, and also help to preserve sites that are of natural, aesthetic, cultural and historical significance. In addition, they can play a significant role in facilitating research, education, training and tourism, even while conserving the ecology of particular areas.
Irrespective of the rationale, the fact that MPAs are cordoned off means that they have a direct impact on coastal communities. Going by estimates from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, as of 2002 fisheries and aquaculture collectively provided direct employment and revenue to around 38 million people worldwide (by 2006, that figure had crossed 43.5 million). A whopping 87 percent of this came from Asia generally, while India alone accounts for about 13 million people directly dependent on the seas. Globally, the marine industry has been growing at around 0.5 percent per year. Given such numbers, right-headed management of MPAs is critical. In some instances, the ‘management’ can mean the blocking-off of an MPA only during certain months of the year, so that the stress on communities is lessened.
31 of 600
The conservation culture has become relatively well established in Southasia, but the protection of marine ecosystems still far lags that of territorial areas. In India, for instance, there are 38 reserves designated solely for the protection of tigers, a fraction of the nearly 600 protected areas in the country including wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and biosphere reserves. In contrast, there are relatively few MPAs. Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary, in Tamil Nadu, was the first of the 31 MPAs in India, designated in 1967 for the protection of wetlands and birds migrating to the region. Thereafter, most of the rest of the MPAs in existence today were designated in the 1980s and early 1990s; these were notified as either national parks or wildlife sanctuaries under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, where, in most cases, no extractive activities whatsoever are allowed. But the success of the MPAs is questionable because such areas have neither been given the required resources for maintenance nor has monitoring taken place on anywhere near the scale the territorial conservation areas receive. Further, policy emphasis has shifted from improving the socio-economic condition of the fisherfolk (in the 1950s) to increasing production for the purpose of export, with increased subsidies for deep-sea trawlers and improved port facilities.
The large-scale fishing sector continues to ravage breeding grounds, with trawlers over-fishing in the once-rich seas of the Indian Ocean. This has seriously affected traditional fishing communities. Even though the Indian state has taken steps to reserve near-shore waters – those up to five km from shore – exclusively for traditional fisherfolk, this policy is marked by non-implementation. There has evolved a myopic focus on increased yields in the short term rather than on environmental instruments such as MPAs, which serve to benefit fish species and fishing communities in the long term. Strangely, individuals or groups looking at the potential of safeguarding ‘no-take areas’, which are not new, have been seen as opposed to livelihoods, as in the case of the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary in Orissa. For this reason, communities must be consulted and involved in the planning of MPAs. Without such involvement, protected areas are quickly rendered pointless and unlikely to succeed, with local communities handicapped if livelihoods are not planned for.
Despite an exponential increase in the number of MPAs worldwide in the last decade (though not in Southasia), over a third are less than one square kilometre in size. Altogether, these cover less than three percent of the world’s oceans, and vary dramatically in terms of distribution. The Indian Ocean is thus completely under-represented – only 79 MPAs, accounting for 0.09 percent of the total area under protection when it comes to the listing and demarcation of marine protection. Because a majority of the existing MPAs are small and have been declared in an ad-hoc fashion, experts generally feel that they are having little effect today. Indeed, in a recent study, less than a third of these worldwide were found to be meeting their conservation or management objectives, with little or no resources. For instance, the Gulf of Mannar in Gujarat, despite its continued high levels of diversity, fell far short on conservation standards, and today belongs to a group of MPAs whose reefs are considered to be under significant threat.
70 percent of the planet
Still, all is not lost, as there are a number of new initiatives taking place today. In the Lakshadweep islands, for instance, community facilitators are spreading a message of protection of ecological heritage as an imperative for the survival of the islanders. Since the 2005 start of the initiative, by the Bombay Natural History Society, data has been collected from every house in Agatti (one of the islands in the 36-island archipelago), tracking the use of natural resources by each household, along with their socio-economic status. Over time and through meetings and consultations, the researchers have won the approval of the conservation community, which now wholeheartedly supports the Agatti Conservation Reserve.
This reserve in Lakshadweep is focused on protecting a type of giant clam that lives in the area. In turn, these species are indicative of a healthy coral population, and thus reflect the condition of the rest of the lagoon reef. A thriving reef works as a protected nursery for fish, which is the primary source of livelihood for this atoll. The coral also acts as a breakwater, ensuring a safer coastline, which in a climate-stressed world is subject to a higher frequency of natural calamities related to rising sea levels, including tidal waves. This daisy-chain approach is central to the functioning of many MPAs: in the Lakshadweep islands the clam is the focus, while in Orissa it is the turtles, the whale sharks in Veraval along the Saurashtra coast and the Maldives, and mangroves in many places throughout the region. Still, larger conservation aims will be impossible unless a consensus is reached on the declaration of a large number of new MPAs along the Indian Ocean coastline of Southasia. Fisherfolk and conservationists must work together towards this objective, though this will involve closed seasons and voluntary fishing bans in some areas for years on end, until stocks rebuild.
Coastal marine habitats, which cover over 70 percent of the planet, have also been overlooked as a potent means to countering climate change. New analysis highlights that coastal habitats have a far greater capacity than terrestrial habitats to achieve long-term carbon sequestration. For instance, the rate of carbon storage in the sediment of tidal salt marshes, mangroves and seagrass meadows is estimated to be approximately 10 times higher that observed in temperate forests, and 50 times that observed in tropical forests. Given that these coastal habitats are under significant threat, and the loss of carbon-sequestration capacity due to the destruction of mangroves and seagrass meadows is comparable to that of the destruction of the Amazon rainforests, the situation calls for immediate action – for the good of the whole planet, beyond that of the human and non-human residents of the Indian Ocean region.
~ Shivani Shah is a freelance writer, currently working with Greenpeace India.