The Gulf of Mannar biosphere, the first marine biosphere in south, is one of the most neglected biodiversity hotspot, said Aruna Basu Sarkar, Chief Conservator of Forests and Director, Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Trust (GOMBRT) on Monday.

Covering 360 km of coastal length spread over four districts and habitat for over 3,600 organisms was declared as a marine biosphere as early as 1989. It was still in a critical position, said Ms. Sarkar at a State-level Consultation on Community Agro-biodiversity Management held at M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.

While people would have to cultivate for products in other areas, the coastal villagers along the biosphere would have to just jump into the sea to get products worth Rs.500 to Rs.1000 everyday. “As it is difficult to find alternative livelihood options that matched the value of marine products, the villagers are reluctant to lead a life without depending on the biosphere,” she said.

The formation of the Trust and constant interaction with the locals prevented mining of coral reef but the coastal communities were still smuggling sea horses and sea cucumber. Despite booking cases against violators, the trade flourished as it was very lucrative. Now, the Trust has written to the Collectors concerned to book repeated offenders under Goondas Act, she said.

Dangerous nets

Besides, industries, without any regulations, were using the locals to smuggle 147 types of sea weeds and 13 variety of sea grass for their needs by paying no fee, Ms. Sarkar charged. The government had banned several dangerous nets but their use continued illegally. As the Forest Department has no powers to book the trawlers violating Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, the onus was on the Fisheries Department.

The four types of marine turtles, which used to breed on the shores of the biosphere, had now become casual visitors. Last April there were two cases of poaching of dugong each weighing 400 kg. But, the offender was allowed to go scot free without any investigation, she said. In a particular case, the president of the eco-development council happened to be a top smuggler of sea cucumber. .

Stating that conservation was still under buried condition in the marine biosphere, Ms. Sarkar said the critical condition raised issues of over-exploitation of marine resources, reduction in fish population and resultant food security for the local community.

On the positive side, Ms. Sarkar said the Trust has successfully trained self-help groups in alternative livelihood options reducing dependence on illegal money lenders, reduced drop-out rate in schools and has provided vocational training to over 1,000 youth.