The Bar Reef in Kalpitiya, which was hit for the second time by a severe coral bleaching event last year, since 1998, is under threat of destruction posing a severe risk to fishing resources, Marine Environmental Specialists cautioned.
IUCN Coastal and Marine Programme Coordinator Arjan Rajasuriya pointed out that most of the fish could disappear when the corals get affected, thereby affecting the fisheries industry.
“This will lead to fishermen resorting to destructive fishing methods. Even now we could see them laying nets on the damaged reef causing further damage,” he said.Rajasuriya, who examined the Bar Reef last week, told the Daily News that almost 99 percent of the corals in shallow waters to a depth of about 5-6 metres were dead following the El Niño and La Niña effect in 2015-2016.
“It will take at least 15-20 years for the destroyed corals to come back, but only if this bleaching occurrence did not take place repeatedly. However, with climate change, it is likely that these occurrences may happen regularly,” said Rajasuriya, who was a former Research Officer at NARA specialized in coral taxonomy.
He noted that the restoration of coral beds by replanting is not possible, given the large scale destruction. “When acres and acres are destroyed, how are you going to restore, and where are you going to get live corals to do that?” he questioned.
He said the country’s coral beds were affected during the La Niña period which happened about six months after the El Niño. He explained that the large-scale death of corals was due to the sea surface temperature increasing to a level that corals cannot tolerate.
The NARA officer observed that the coral reefs along the Western and Southern coasts were badly affected last year, while the East coast did not suffer that much because of the wind pattern and atmospheric conditions.
“When we went last week, we discovered that the reef has not recovered and most of the damaged corals have now become rubble. With the wave action and current, they roll over the living corals and bury them. The bleached corals have not got time to recover because of this movement of coral rubble,” he explained.
He pointed out that in the case of 1998, the reef structure was largely intact because it was the first large-scale bleaching event. “This helped new coral larvae to settle. When it happened this time, the reef structure was weak. Now it has turned to rubble,” he added.
Ocean Resources Conservation Association (ORCA) Marine Research Team Leader Prasanna Weerakkody speaking to the Daily News said the Bar Reef had a chance of recovering in post-1998 due to minimum human impact in the area during the time of war.
“Certain sections of the Bar Reef recovered almost perfectly and gained about 90 percent live coral cover within a decade from 1998-2009. However, now there is a lot more human impact on it such as fishing pressure, dynamiting and use of ‘laila’ and ‘surukku’ nets, ornamental fish collection, tourism and pollution. We do not know the future of the reef. For proper recovery, we need to restrict human impact. The coral reef is going to have a very difficult period recovering and it is not going to recover if we add our own pressure over it,” he said.
He observed there is a heavy growth of algae on the reef now.
The Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary declared in 1992 is the largest marine protected area in Sri Lanka. It stretches parallel to the coast from the northern end of the Kalpitiya Peninsula, to the islands which separate Portugal Bay from the Gulf of Mannar. The reserve covers about 306 square kilometres.