` 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
IT IS already abundantly clear that 2016 will be a banner year for tropical coral reefsthe 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
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,