Vedithalathivu Nature Reserve under threat
3 years ago
By Tharumalee Silva The Vedithalathivu Reserve, which was declared a nature reserve in 2015, is now facing the threat of being de-gazetted by the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources together with the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Christian Religious Affairs as the Government is looking to re-allocate the land for activities relating to aquaculture. The project was initiated in 2017, but due to the land area proposed for the project being a natural reserve, the authorities were obstructed from concluding the project. Speaking to The Sunday Morning, National Aquaculture Development Authority (NAQDA) Chairman Nuwan Prasantha Madawan Arachchi said that the project was first proposed before the natural reserve in Vedithalathivu was declared a protected forest. He stated that the project’s main objective was to pave the way for foreign currency to enter the country’s economy. “There is an estimated $ 1 billion of revenue from this project, and many countries such as Malaysia, China, Singapore, and Japan have expressed their interest in purchasing our product. Especially the famous mud crab that can only be found in Sri Lankan waters. This particular species is very popular in Sri Lanka,” he said. Project under control Even though a high demand exists for these species, Madawan Arachchi stated that the supply is very low and therefore, this particular project may be a money-making hub to improve the economy. “Although we have tourism and other sectors focusing on the inflow of foreign currency, aquaculture has proven to be more effective in this regard,” he said. Madawan Arachchi further stated that the land in Vedithalathivu was specifically chosen as it possessed the necessary qualities needed for aquaculture and the area was located close to the sea. He stated that a Cabinet decision was taken to de-gazette the Vedithalathivu area as a protected area. Following this, the Cabinet ordered investigations to be carried out and a full environmental impact assessment (EIA) to be presented by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA). “The NARA report only cleared 1,000 hectares as suitable for aquaculture, even though we asked for 1,500 hectares. They ruled that the other areas are highly sensitive and that we will limit the area to 1,000 hectares as approved by the NARA,” he said. However, sharing his insights into the matter, environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardana stated that NARA’s environmental assessment study clearly stated that “further studies are needed”. In his opinion, the report does not support the project in any way. Further, Madawan Arachchi also stated that the Department of Wildlife seemed hesitant to grant permission to carry out the project, but NAQDA remains hopeful. Aquaculture, despite being a sector with many economic benefits, could result in many detrimental environmental consequences if the practice is conducted carelessly. Conflicting concerns According to the article titled “All About Aquaculture: Environmental Risks and Benefits” published by the Talking Fish – an organisation providing insights into scientific, social, and economic aspects of New England’s fisheries – one of the main concerns regarding aquaculture is the nutrient and effluent build-up on the seafloor within the cages the aquatic creatures are kept in. Due to fish being contained in limited spaces at high densities, their waste, which contains dissolved nutrients such as nitrogen, may cause hazardous situations as they could build up below these cages and in the surrounding areas. As a result, this could deplete the water of oxygen and create “dead zones” near the aquaculture sites. Another issue discussed in the article is disease and the parasite epidemics within these fish farms.Due to the high population of fish kept within confined spaces, the spread of various epidemics is almost instant. Various environmentalists voiced their concerns over de-gazetting the reserved space. “The Vedithalathivu Reserve was once a base for Sea Tigers due to the formation of mangroves,” said Gunawardana. Despite the concerns raised, Madawan Arachchi stated that everything possible is done to minimise the environmental impact of the project. “The world has developed now and it is possible to minimise the negative impacts the project will have on the environment. If the project is approved, we will be using advanced technology to ensure the impact on the environment is at a minimum,” he said. He further stated that the products of aquaculture are directly targeted towards exportation. With relation to the budget of the project, Madawan Arachchi said that there was no budget estimate as of yet. “We have not prepared a proper cost of production or budget yet. Therefore, I cannot give an estimate. However, despite the media reports, I can assure you that there have not been any countries that invested in this project – they expressed their interest, but they have not yet invested,” he stated. He further stated that a decision on the matter will be made by the Department of Wildlife Conservation in the near future.