What of our oceans?
World Ocean Day symposium conducted by The Pearl Protectors
In celebration of World Ocean Day, voluntary-based organisation The Pearl Protectors hosted a live online symposium discussing a wide range of subjects on 7 June at 5 p.m. via their Facebook page. The symposium began with eye-opening footage of plastic collected and buried in coral reefs around our island and along our shorelines. Failure to implement the plastic ban after three attempts was specifically highlighted, capturing the audience’s attention and establishing the need for radical change to protect our oceans and seabeds.
The panel consisted of four individuals who are well established and respected in their respective areas of expertise, namely: Blue Oceans Trust Co-founder and marine biologist Nishan Perera, University of Peradeniya Zoology Department lecturer Chathurika Munasinghe, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) General Manager Dr. P.B. Terney Pradeep Kumara, and Biodiversity Education and Research (BEAR) Co-founder Ranil Nanayakkara. With each panellist highlighting equally important issues, this article will summarise the main discussion while also sharing what they exclusively shared with The Sunday Morning Brunch.
Speaking of the issues regarding fisheries and the importance of seeing what is more ecological and economical for the future, Perera said that fisheries in itself is not harmful as long as it is done in a sustainable way. Understanding how much we can remove with our carrying capacity within a certain period of time without depleting the resource to a point that it cannot recover is what is important.
Along with identifying this capability, it is also important to identify the impact dynamite fishing and fishing trawlers have on the marine environment which brings destruction upon the habitat. These practices will also destroy juvenile fishers and untargeted species, so there is a tremendous waste. In the long term, this will have a negative impact on the fisheries industry as well. Even a simple practice like spearfishing being commercialised in Sri Lanka has a negative impact on the ecosystem. Apart from this, he went on to say the issue of overfishing is driven by the export-oriented market.
Dr. P. B Terney Pradeep Kumara
Dr. Kumara shared the current status of the ocean environment around our country, which is supposed to be eight times larger than the landmass of the island. However, the environment is degrading, with anthropogenic activities contributing adversely. Improper fishing practices, high volumes of tourist activities, harbour expansions, and underwater explosions are identified as the most contributory factors. These further contribute to the increase in temperatures and depletion of coral reefs.
He saw the need for a common voice among all entities working for the wellbeing of the ocean rather than separate ad hoc interventions and projects, along with creating awareness among the public.
With this World Ocean Day focusing on endangered marine species, Nanayakkara gave the audience an understanding of the current overview, conservative efforts, and threats faced by these species. The dugong, the finless porpoise, and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin are threatened species in this region. All these species share a habitat with the fishing industry so they get caught unintendedly and also fall victim to unethical fishing practices. As a result, their habitats get destroyed in the process. In general, the threats faced by marine mammals are ship strikes, being bycatch, contamination of the habitat due to fuel dumps, and habitat degradation, out of which bycatch, both accidental and intentional, is the biggest contributor. And these threats are also relevant globally and to Sri Lanka as well.
Factors contributing to the depletion of coral reefs in Sri Lanka together with factors that contribute to climate change were discussed by Munasinghe. She too emphasised the impact of unethical fishing practices and sedimentation that contributes to the turbidity of water and deformation of the coral reefs’ growing capabilities. Apart from these direct impacts, she also spoke of coral bleaching that could kill a reef. It is a direct result of global warming and a phenomenon now experienced all over the world. An entire reef can get completely bleached in two weeks and die off in a couple of months. The rapid pace in which it happens is even more horrifying. A research she was a part of found that 90% of the shallow reefs were dead in the Bar Reef of Kalpitiya. Within a year, algae has covered the entire reef and smaller species found close to the reef were absent.
She further stated that on a global scale, we are to expect many marine heatwaves and thus more coral bleaching incidents in the near future. These heat waves are a direct consequence of global warming. If it escalates as predicted, she stated that in the next 10 to 20 years, we will experience a significant loss of our coral reefs around the world. In Sri Lanka, there has been a bleaching incident in the east coast as recently as 2019. The threat is real.
The panel discussion that went on for over two hours was truly informative. The video recording is available on The Pearl Protectors Facebook group and is definitely worth your time. The focus on our marine environment has been gaining some momentum over the last couple of years. Although the incident of the Mount Lavinia Beach filling was discouraging, we hope that as the panellists advocated, the authorities would come together and form a combined and focused effort in conserving our oceans and beaches.