The power of the individual in protecting our seas: The Pearl Protectors on their newest marine animal awareness campaign

Pearl Protectors Co-ordinator Muditha Katuwawala

The sea has always been something of a mystery to man. The fact that there is literally a whole world just out of reach is difficult to comprehend, and for many of us, out of sight is out of mind, and we don’t always pay attention to the impact our actions on land can have on the sea.

The Pearl Protectors is a youth-led marine conservation organisation that looks to help our relationship with the sea and the animals that live in marine environments. Established in 2018, The Pearl Protectors seek to reduce plastic pollution and conserve the marine environment through youth engagement, volunteerism, awareness, and advocacy.

Since its inception in 2018, The Pearl Protectors have engaged and conducted various advocacy and awareness initiatives to inspire Sri Lankans to protect the marine environment while becoming responsible citizens by promoting sustainable and eco-friendly behaviour, and initiatives to reduce the human impact on the marine habitat.


Building awareness on Sri Lanka’s marine animals

The Pearl Protectors recently launched a new campaign, “Marine Animals of Sri Lanka”, in an attempt to educate the public about some of Sri Lanka’s most interesting marine animals. Speaking to Brunch, Pearl Protectors Co-ordinator Muditha Katuwawala explained that “Marine Animals of Sri Lanka” is something that The Pearl Protectors will be focusing on this year to help draw attention to Sri Lanka’s unique marine animals, especially the larger ones.

“The main problem is that we know about other animals like elephants, leopards, fishing cats, and so on because they live on land, but we have much more diverse and rich animal groups found in our waters and seas,” Katuwawala said.

“Marine Animals of Sri Lanka” will highlight these fascinating animals through individual “profiles” – infographics that will show the animal and explain how it lives, where it lives, and what its key issues are. “We want to really highlight these animals and include localised information, not just base our profiles off worldwide data,” Katuwawala shared. “We researched the Sri Lankan status, highlighting where they can be found in Sri Lanka during the year and in what habitat.”

The profiles of “Marine Animals of Sri Lanka” provide a quick snapshot of its chosen animal, describing its appearance, colour, natural habitat, where it can most easily be found, the threats it faces, and the conservation measures being taken for their protection.


Impact of ‘Marine Animals of Sri Lanka’

The first stage of the “Marine Animals of Sri Lanka” campaign includes the compilation of 18 profiles of frequently seen marine animals off Sri Lanka’s coasts. A digital campaign for the moment, Katuwawala shared that the long-term vision for the campaign includes physical infographics that can be printed and placed on beaches, tourist hotspots, and hotels to foster increased awareness among tourists, both foreign and local, into what creatures they can expect to see in the area. It is The Pearl Protectors’ hope to be able to work with coastguards using coastguard points and also to work with hotels on this campaign for added impact.

“These profiles are made in the format of cards because the intention is for people to save the cards, and if they’re going to the beach or similar, they can quickly refer to these cards rather than googling and searching,” Katuwawala explained. “It’s meant to be more of a guide for people to understand what they are seeing.”

Katuwala added that as “Marine Animals of Sri Lanka” is more of an education initiative, The Pearl Protectors hopes to encourage people to collect information independently that can be used by authorities and organisations to better conserve and safeguard marine animals and environments.

“We’re not asking people to report back or anything like that, but anyone can become a citizen scientist, and we want to improve and encourage the concept of the citizen scientist,” Katuwawala said. “One way this can happen is if someone sees a particular species on the beach and lets us know, like what happened in October last year when some pilot whales got stranded.”


Rise of the citizen scientist

Katuwawala shared that citizen scientists can play an important role by reporting animals in distress and contributing to data through providing information on things like identifying characteristics of the animals they have seen, where they saw them, and so on.

“The citizen scientist concept is very new and is basically where data gathering takes place with public support,” Katuwawala explained. “Data gathering with researchers alone can become costly, the sample size collected can become biased or insufficient, and cannot be done continuously. Citizen scientist data gathering hasn’t really been done before in Sri Lanka per se, but has happened for a few things here and there. For example, the Diyasaru Wetlands Park has a small citizen scientist programme where people report back if they see specific creatures like dragonflies or similar.”

Katuwawala added that the citizen scientist concept can really help create awareness and become an important concept to highlight the importance of ocean creatures, but stressed that it needs to be done carefully. “People are still quite new to it, and there will need to be a briefing system where people clearly understand what citizen scientists are and how the concept works.”

Katuwawala also shared that The Pearl Protectors hopes to work with citizen scientists more in the future and try to engage citizen scientists in their future activities, especially a study they’re currently working on related to microplastics. “We’ve been doing a study on sachets, because there’s a sachet ban coming up,” Katuwawala shared. “We’ve been researching that and the consumption of plastic, in general, to identify how effective the ban will be.”

An important part of the study, for example, is identifying the different microplastics in the market, something that is impossible to do with a small number of people given the size of Sri Lanka’s marketplace, and this is where citizen scientists can play an important role. “The incentive for citizen scientists is the contribution they are making towards a greater cause.”

Through awareness initiatives like “Marine Animals of Sri Lanka”, and through the engagement of citizen scientists, Katuwawala hopes to lay the base for a more sustainable and protected marine environment.