Coral reef heritage of India
THE INDIAN coral reefs are world famous but least explored, studied and utilised. On the other hand, they are indiscriminately damaged by human exploitation mainly for the cement industry (calcium carbide), road and building material in certain areas like the Gulf of Mannar and the Gulf of Kutch. The other two regions, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Lakshadweep, because of their far-flung location from the mainland, are comparatively less affected by human depredations, according to various surveys conducted by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Cochin in the 1980s and the 1990s. Coral reefs are in peril not only in this country but also in the oceans round the globe due to human interference, natural calamities, disease, etc. It is sad to note while even small island countries have taken adequate steps to protect and contain the damage to corals, mainly from human interference, India has paid practically no attention to the alarming deterioration of coral reefs. It is, however, understandable that this pathetic condition of the reefs and neglect is merely due to ignorance of the authorities concerned and lack of political will and action on such vital scientific issues.
The CMFRI, for the first time in the country in the 1960s, documented the coral species occurring in the seas around India with relevant taxonomic descriptions and reporting of a number of new species. These vast collections were deposited in the museum of the institute at Mandapam Camp. To draw international attention to the biological and geological significance of the Indian reefs, the Marine Biological Association of India held the international symposium on corals and coral reefs at Mandapam Camp. This was recognised as one of the series of coral reef symposia held in the world in due recognition of the scientific content, participation and the focus given for future research on the subject in this part of the world.
However, for want of manpower, funds, infrastructure and other facilities, the institute could not devote adequate attention to corals and associated organisms. Even then, with meagre resources, the institute spared no efforts to conduct investigations on several reef organisms by scientists, research fellows and students. The data and information thus generated laid firm foundations for coral reef research in the country. This should have culminated in the establishment of an exclusive and specialised institute for research and development of corals and coral reef, for which the CMFRI submitted a detailed proposal to the ICAR almost a decade ago but the proposal did not see the light of the day for reasons not known to the present writer. In the meantime, it is understood that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has taken some steps in this direction. Whether it is in the context of the above proposal or independently, it should be considered the right and timely step, of course with the full involvement of CMFRI which has the expertise and necessary background.
Focused and exclusive attention to reef studies alone would enable the country to forge ahead to preserve the coral reef heritage. The new institute, among other things, should establish national (with several CSIR and ICAR institutes) and international linkages and collaboration to deal with many facets of research common to countries bordering the equatorial belt. While the earth's resources have been exploited extensively and even overexploited in some cases due to easy accessibility, those of the oceans remained vastly untapped though they can meet many requirements of mankind. The oceans hold the key for future prosperity of humanity for food security, power, potable water through desalination, pharmaceutical products, mineral resources, oil, gas, etc. In this context the coral reefs can play a vital role in that they harbour several other organisms, which can be harnessed to yield valuable products besides directly supporting food resources in the form of fish, other animals and plants. But the remoteness of the coral areas from civilisation, adverse atmospheric and environmental conditions prevailing in the coastal areas, hazardous terrains and often uninhabitable and difficult living conditions hamper rapid progress. These obstacles have to be surmounted by appropriate action to create smooth working atmosphere and facilities to urgently check the deteriorating condition of the reefs and protect them by banning all human activities. Designated marine parks have to be established on a priority basis. The precious available expertise in the country should be quickly deployed for reef research as otherwise brain drain may take place.
Tracing the geological history of corals, harping on what is the state of health of the reefs and the proposed two-year project for bio-physical coral reef monitoring by the WWF (ref: corals in peril, The Hindu, September 20) would only be like shedding crocodile tears on the enormous and imminent problems the coral reef ecosystem is facing in the country. On the other hand, the establishment of a specialised institute with clear cut mandate for comprehensive research, continuous monitoring and extensive surveys applying modern tools like remote sensing for mapping and evaluating the health of the reefs and associated organisms would be the answer for protecting this fragile ecosystem.
Former Director, CMFRI
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