Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Gulf of Mannar: Conservation and Exploitation

Wandering the beaches in southern Tamil Nadu is an eye-opening experience. It's a beach-comber's delight - or nightmare, depending on how squeamish you are.  Broken woven baskets encrusted with dried fish detritus, coils of abandoned fishing net, the severed heads and tails of puffer fish and stingrays, and, least appealing, ubiquitous cow pies - or what would be called cow pies if they were made by cows and not people. Millions of fish corpses lay spread on the sunbaked earth, slowly drying in preparation for the fishmeal market. The acres of scaly bodies are so salty, so dry, that not even the black and grey Indian crows perched on the rooftops are tempted by them.

The beaches of the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve are not exactly what I expected. Being the starry-eyed, naive conservationist that I am, words like "biosphere reserve", "community-based conservation", and "UNESCO" make me think of tidy landscapes, prosperous people, and sustainable natural resource use.  Let’s just say that there is still some work to be done in the Gulf of Mannar.

In India the designation "biosphere reserve" has no legal status.  So the waters lapping at these busy and littered beaches have no more protection than any other piece of coastal water. However, areas with the biosphere reserve label do get a little more attention and funding than the average chunk of landscape crying out for a little conservation. 

The Gulf of Mannar was the first marine biosphere reserve in south-east Asia. These coastal waters of Tamil Nadu are extensively studied and support between 3,600-5,000 different species, making it one of the richest coastal regions in Asia.  Although fishing is allowed in the reserve, it is not allowed in the core area, the Gulf of Mannar marine national park, which encompasses the waters 500 meters offshore a series of small islands stretching down the coast.  National park is a much more rigorous management category than biosphere reserve. The wildlife warden of the national park and personnel from the Forest Department work together to manage human impacts in the area.

There is no doubt that the Gulf of Mannar is heavily over-fished. Illegal exploitation even occurs within the national park. Buoys were recently installed to delineate the edges of the protected area, but local fishermen quickly cut them loose to prevent strict enforcement. At the time of my visit state elections were only a few weeks away. In a triumph of political expediency over law enforcement, the incumbent politicians were deliberately refraining from enforcing the boundaries of the national park until after the elections in an effort to please voters.

In Ramanathapuram I met with an employee of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust, a public-private partnership organization working on sustainable development and livelihood issues in the national park and biosphere reserve.  He described to me the incomplete regulatory framework governing India’s fisheries and marine resources.  The Marine Fishing Regulation Act focuses entirely on the economic aspects of fishing and has no conservation focus.  Lack of enforcement is also a problem. Although regulations state that fishing net mesh size should be no smaller than 5cm, mesh sizes of 1.5-2 cm are common. Although the waters between the shoreline and 5km offshore are reserved for artisanal fishing, commercial trawlers commonly operate within the 5km limit.  Fishermen have been trained (and are required) to use turtle exclusion devices (TEDs) and juvenile (fish) exclusion devices (JEDs), but commonly use neither, as these technologies can cause them to lose 12-15% of their catch, a loss they are not prepared to endure. Because most trawlers are owned by rich businessmen living away from coastal fishing communities, the economic benefits of fishing are often not experienced by local fishermen. The cost of a trawl fishing boat is in the range of 30 lakh rupees (3 million dollars), far beyond the reach of actual fishermen. These rich trawl owners are politically well connected, ensuring nothing has been done to make trawl fishing more sustainable in over two decades.  An additional complication in this region is the narrowness of the exclusive economic zone between India and Sri Lanka. The waters are shallow with ever-changing patterns of sedimentation, forcing fishing boats to sometimes stray into the other nation’s waters. 

But despite these issues, in some ways the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve is a model for public-private conservation partnerships and innovative programs.  The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust, jointly funded by the Government of India and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), runs a number of programs in rural fishing communities in coastal Tamil Nadu.  One major focus is capacity building. In the last several years almost 250 eco-development committees, each serving between 5-20 villages, have been developed. These committees manage microcredit programs, administer small grants for alternative livelihood training, and educate youth.  The Trust promotes some alternatives to fishing such as jasmine and betel leaf cultivation, making charcoal, palm jaggery, plaster of paris dolls and idols, salt, and shared autos.  It was also instrumental in getting plastic bags banned in the region, installing public, pay-to-use toilets, and building a centralized fish market to allow better communication between fishermen and better hygiene and display of the catch.   One major success of the Trust’s programs has been to eliminate high interest rate money lenders by starting its own low interest micro-credit scheme.

Additional threats to the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve are untreated sewage, nearby industrial plants releasing effluent, and over-harvesting of seaweed from the shallow waters around islands in the reserve.  Dynamite and cyanide fishing and coral mining have been completely stopped thanks to the work of the Trust.


  1. catching up on reading here, fresh, and just blown away by your adventures. sending big hugs from bk. xoxo

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