Groupers, snappers, zebra fish, clownfish, parrotfish, butterflyfish, starfish, sea cucumbers, sponges, crabs, lobsters and anemone thrive amid the reefs of the Andaman islands. Dugong (the State animal) graze on seagrass meadows nearby. Sharks swim past occasionally, a wide variety of them. As the waters deepen, the species of coral changes, as do the kinds of marine life housing amid them. Life under the sea is as complex and interwoven an ecosystem as any other, and coral reefs form a key component. “Coral reefs cover less than 1% of the world’s ocean surface area, but are home to about a third of all marine life,” points out Nayantara Jain, executive director of ReefWatch Marine Conservation.
ReefWatch has been working for reef conservation since 1993, and has been a part of the National Board for Wildlife since 2007. Now, they want the public to be part of their operations too, and help with their unique project of restoring and rebuilding the South Andaman Island’s embattled reefs.
How can you help? By becoming a reef guardian.
Nayantara explains: “People can adopt a section — about 1 metre by 1.5 metre — of our restored coral reefs, at ₹35,000 a year. That is the money we need to maintain that reef area as well as to expand our programme [potentially to touristy parts of the Andamans like Havelock Island]. In return, they get a certificate, a gift, and updates through the year with images of the reef, information on how much the corals have grown there, what marine life has come to live there.”
So how exactly is a reef restored? Nayantara says they use naturally broken fragments of coral. “They can break off due to storms or wave action, be hit by dropping anchors, or get bitten off by fish. When a coral fragment breaks, it stays alive for four days to about a week, after which it dies because it gets smothered in the sand. We dive and collect these fragments, and then we put down a metal ring on the sand, next to the natural reef. We tie these pieces of coral onto those metal frames, and connect it to a solar panel and basically make it a mineral accretion device.”
The accretion process is key: the mineral in question here is calcium carbonate. Low-voltage direct current from the solar panels to the metal frame turns the surrounding water more alkaline. This aids the formation of calcium carbonate, which is what coral polyps expend most of their energy trying to create in order to grow. By making this energy-intensive process easier, more resilience is created for them to fight off threats like warming and disease.
There are a few things to keep in mind, of course. “The depth at which we collect the coral has to be the same depth at which we transplant. The chances of the coral surviving is much greater then — different species are evolved to withstand different amounts of sunlight [or water temperature and pressure], just like plants used to specific conditions that are unlikely to survive if you shift them to different ones.”
But within a close vicinity, the more species they find, the merrier: “On each reef, there are many different species of coral. This biodiversity is a good thing, because it creates shelter for different kinds of fish. We try to maintain that by not selecting any particular species of coral.
- Barrier reefs, fringing reefs and atolls
- 19 different species of seagrass
- Over 200 species of hard coral
Coral survives under a particular temperature range, but rising temperatures have forced them to evolve.
“They generally do best between about 18 to 26 degrees Celsius; as you start going over that range, the situation becomes less ideal. In the Andamans, the water temperature is about 28 degrees, which the coral there has evolved to grow in. But now, sea water temperature regularly goes up to even 30 degrees, causing coral bleaching and, eventually, death. Also, when there are a lot of nutrients in the water, it can lead to the growth of macro-algae. It covers the coral and it ends up dying. We are seeing more nutrients in the water due to things like untreated sewage discharge.”
Increasing water temperatures and reduced water quality are affecting coral reefs. Tourism rising over the past decade has not helped. “These are the reasons we started this project two years ago,” says Nayantara.
Its success has resulted in the ReefWatch team training Forest Department divers as well, so the reef in India’s marine protected areas can also be restored. She signs off with a reminder: “Corals are a Schedule I protected species under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act.”
To sign up for the programme, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or a message to @reefwatchindia Instagram page.