They are the ‘rainforest’ of the sea, but unregulated marine tourism is threatening to degrade the rich and diverse ecosystem of Goa’s coral reefs.
Has it ever occurred to you when you indulge in marine tourism or sports like water scooters, water skiing, parasailing, jet skiing, kayaking, canoeing, surfing, sailing, yachting, scuba diving or boat tours at the Grande Island archipelago as to how much damage it is causing to the water-world below?
These uncontrolled ‘anthropogenic stressors’ – arising from human activities – have exaggerated the risk to corals reflected in the altered structure of the reef communities in the area.
However, it’s not just anthropogenic factors that disturb them; they are also affected by ‘environmental stressors’ such as bleaching, overfishing, shipping, climate change and coastal effluents.
It all began when marine nature-based and recreational tourism was discovered in the 1980s. It held a huge promise of additional livelihood for the Goans. There was little or no thought given to the adverse impact it could have on the health of coral reefs.
Over 40 years later, it is posing a threat to the coral reef health. This is what was found in the first most comprehensive coral reef data set on Grande Island published by National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in 2018. It states that the live coral cover, which indicates the general health of reefs, at the archipelago was “arguably” lower than India’s other reef areas – Lakshadweep, Gulf of Mannar and the Andamans and Nicobar islands.
“The average live coral cover ranged from 10 per cent to 40 per cent at different survey sites,” it noted. This level of live coral cover is a cause of concern.
Some local divers have also observed changes in community structure and coral health of the reefs and swung into action to protect and conserve them. Coastal Impact, an NGO involved with marine conservation, education and research, has initiated coral transplantation by creating artificial reefs to restore and conserve them. They are doing this in a way that livelihood of the people in the area is not lost.
Simply put, coral transplantation means physically relocating corals from an inhospitable site to somewhere they can thrive.
The NGO’s pilot project, undertaken in 2021, has been successful with an average survival rate of corals at 60.41 per cent and increase in size by 522 per cent over a period of one and a half years.
It has also succeeded in mobilising funds from Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) and individuals to expand the project from four coral tables to 10 coral tables covering over 500 coral fragments.
Venkatesh Charloo, a certified scuba instructor, ex-banker and now also an environmentalist, told GT Digital, “Our coral transplantation pilot project is completed. We have to start the new project. For which, we have designed 50 AR (artificial reef) structures. Of these, five are down (at bottom of the sea) at the moment. Once all of them are down, we will begin the process of transplantation of the coral.”
According to him, coral transplantation work will go on up till April next year. After which they will monitor it for two or three years before coming out with the data on growth and survivability of corals in the area.
Charloo, however, is facing constraints on two fronts – funding and lack of sense of priority for marine conservation projects. He says marine projects figure at the bottom of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) list.
The heartening fact is Goa’s corals are extremely resilient and therefore do not suffer long term degradation.
“Couple of years ago, there was almost 70-80 per cent coral bleaching but they recovered after monsoon. We need to do a study on that. We have found they (Goa’s corals) are super resistant to global warming and climate change so they can be used for transplantation in other areas where the corals have suffered bleaching,” informed Charloo.
Another positive development has been the setting up of marine cell by the state’s forest department. Charloo’s commercial diving arm – Barracuda Diving – has already begun training five forest department staff in scuba diving. The staff will start monitoring coral reefs after they are certified divers.
All this augurs well for the Goa’s coral reef preservation, but it would do well to keep the warnings of experts in mind to prevent degradation in future.
Reports by International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), a multilateral treaty overseen by the UN food and agriculture organizations, have warned that up to 90 per cent of the coral reefs could be lost by 2050 even if global warming increase was controlled to 1.5 degree Celsius.
An NIO report has also given a cautionary note: “The future of coral reef degradation cannot be disregarded due to the (Grande) island’s close proximity to the mainland and the coast of Goa, which is an important tourist destination in India. Therefore, we suggest a long-term periodic monitoring of ecological indicators that would help secure the health of the coral reefs and mitigate the impact of tourism on Grande island.”