` Lak­shad­weep peo­ple may soon be the first cli­mate change refugees in In­dia'

The reefs are un­likely to bounce back the way they did af­ter 1998

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY - RO­HAN ARTHUR

IT IS al­ready abun­dantly clear that 2016 will be a ban­ner year for trop­i­cal coral reefs‹the year the reef died, yet again! The last time this hap­pened was in 1998. Then, the world lost over 15 per cent of its reefs in a sin­gle year to a mon­ster El NiÀo. Although it will be sev­eral years be­fore we can fully mea­sure ex­actly how much we will lose this time around, by all in­di­ca­tions, the El NiÀo of 2016 ri­vals that of 1998 in its in­ten­sity and im­pact.

1998 took us by sur­prise. Yet it brought to the fore­front the fragility of our ecosys­tems to cli­mate change. In Lak­shad­weep, within a few weeks we saw reefs de­cline to less than 80 per cent of their orig­i­nal coral cover. Fish num­bers plum­meted in reefs across the world.

If 1998 served as a rally-cry to the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, we sci­en­tists did, in ret­ro­spect, a rather bad job of mak­ing it heard to the world at large. The me­dia too soon moved to the next head­line, leav­ing the shat­tered reefs to limp to a patchy re­cov­ery.

2016 is dif­fer­ent. Across the globe, marine bi­ol­o­gists are now bet­ter pre­pared to doc­u­ment the disas­ter that is rapidly un­fold­ing. In Lak­shad­weep, our re­searchers have been pre­par­ing for this for more than a year. Now, we are rac­ing against time to mea­sure the im­pact as it hap­pens. We will have to wait un­til De­cem­ber 2016 be­fore we can prop­erly as­sess the im­pact. The longterm con­se­quences will un­ravel over

the next few years and decades.

Our team al­ready has a de­cent sense of what al­lows some reefs to re­cover af­ter these dis­tur­bances while oth­ers suc­cumb. In Lak­shad­weep, this is linked, among other things, to main­tain­ing a healthy pop­u­la­tion of reef fish, par­tic­u­larly her­bi­vores that mow the macroal­gae down and keep the reef sub­strate clean for ar­riv­ing coral re­cruits. Preda­tory fish en­sure that coral-de­stroy­ing an­i­mals do not in­crease in num­ber. Un­for­tu­nately, since 2010, there has been a grow­ing com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of reef fish. It is now clear that the reef can­not sus­tain even low lev­els of com­mer­cial fish­ing. Know­ing how crit­i­cal reef fish are to reef re­cov­ery, my fears are that these reefs will not bounce back the way they did af­ter 1998.

What is at stake is the very sur­vival of the is­lands. Each is­land in the ar­chi­pel­ago is pro­tected within a calm la­goon sur­rounded by a fortress of coral. The mo­ment these reefs lose this abil­ity for self-re­pair, the atoll frame­works start to come apart. And that could start a chain of events very dif­fi­cult to fix. There is a threat that in two gen­er­a­tions, if not sooner, the peo­ple of Lak­shad­weep may be the first cli­mate change refugees in In­dia. This is not some rant­ing, but a real and ur­gent call to recog­nise how cen­tral the health of the reef is to the sur­vival

Arthur is a sci­en­tist of oceans and coast with the Na­tional Con­ser­va­tion

Foun­da­tion, My­suru

dif­fer­ent species of corals,” she says. Man­frino adds that while hav­ing an ex­ten­sive marine pro­tected area did not stop bleach­ing, it def­i­nitely con­trib­uted to the re­cov­ery. Even when bleached corals man­age to re­cover,

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