Priceless Buona-vista reef lost forever?

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Coral reefs play a vital role as a barrier from high tides and erosion in this Island nation have been heavily degraded over the years due to natural and man-made disasters and the overall impact of such disasters have become more noticeable now than ever before. Experts are of the view that if the reefs are not properly managed and monitored these valuable natural reefs will be lost forever. They opine that they were ideal tourist attractions and if maintained could bring in the much-needed foreign exchange!

Days following the recent inclement weather reported in Galle, large portions of the Buona-vista reef, Rumassala was washed ashore. This was last seen in an incident nearly twenty-five years ago where huge amounts of the reef were washed ashore.

Park warden of the Department of Wildlife Conservation Hikkaduwa, P.G. Uthpala Adaranga said the Buona-vista reef which is a live coral and has one of the highest diversities has been subjected to many threats, adding however, that washing of the reef to the shore was not very common noting that such occurrence including coral bleaching could be traced to the 1990s due to El Niño which is the warming of the water surface.

Dying of the Buona-Vista reef

While noting that investigations into the washing off of the reef in Jungle Beach, Unawatuna are yet to commence, it is essential to assess the reason behind this considering the negative impact that would follow with the depletion of the reef. He added that commonly, the Buona-vista reef has been subjected to several man-made disasters including illegal fishing techniques, snorkelling and diving and by large ship passage.

Senior Adviser to the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and Chair of Friends of Earths International, Hemantha Withanage said one of the main reasons that is believed to be affecting the Buona-vista reef is the large number of shipwrecks underwater in the Galle area which exerts pressure on the reef.

Threat to the reef

According to the president, Global Coral Reef Alliance, Thomas J. Goreau, Ph.D, considerable portions of the reef, especially on the deeper edge, have been dynamited by fishermen, and areas which were formerly lush coral are now barren piles of flattened rubble.

‘’The reef is already subject to sedimentation damage caused by re-suspended mud brought in by the monsoon from the bay and from nearby rivers, and is already near the extreme limit of what it can tolerate, so any increase in erosion from the mountain could destroy the reef’’ he added.

Other threats to the reef include large scale pollution from the port and city of Galle, including oil, sewage, and industrial wastes. Development of the Galle Harbour needs to be controlled to prevent damage to the reef. Proposals to place a container port at Rumassala, which would completely destroy the reef, need to be cancelled, and the port moved to an environmentally-sounder location. Sewage inputs to the bay need to be controlled and treated, Goreau added .

Although access to the reef is not easy, the area is heavily used by local bathers, including many bus loads of people especially on weekends, and untrained swimmers have trampled and broken large amounts of fragile coral. Plastic, garbage and bottles are found on the shore, and washed in from across the bay.

Further it was noted that the Buona-Vista reef has the highest documented diversity of fish and corals in Sri Lanka, however the reef is very small, intensively used by local bathers and by fishermen, and is not under effective management.

He also noted heavy mining and deteriorating water quality now limit healthy coral reefs to only very small pockets along the southwestern coast and that only two good patches of reef now remain, at Hikkaduwa and at Buona- Vista. Both are so small, around 100 metres long, that each could be totally destroyed by a single large ship grounding or an oil spill.

Dr. Arjan Rajasuriya of the National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) said, Coral reef structures dominated by living corals are the only reef communities capable of protecting the coast against waves, and are found only in very restricted areas of the Sri Lankan coast where water quality is suitable. These tiny areas are invaluable national natural resources needing strong management and protection.

Further, a survey recently carried out at Buona Vista by Dr. John Veron, found at least two coral species new to science, and over half a dozen more which could not be clearly identified, which could also be new species. Studies being carried out by Dr. S. U. K. Ekaratne of the University of Colombo are also revealing large numbers of marine organisms previously unknown in Sri Lanka. Such richness of species is astonishing for so small a reef area, he said.

Adaranga noted that the Buona-Vista reef, Rumassala is a part of the Rumassala Wildlife Sanctuary and protected under Section 7 of the Fauna and Flora and Protection Ordinance noting thereby that the if the said incident was a result of a human act, it would construe to being an offence.

No office for Rumassala Wildlife Sanctuary?

Adaranga said, the Rumassala sanctuary to which the the Buona-vista reef belongs is protected through the Hikkaduwa office and there is no wildlife office close to the vicinity of the sanctuary due to which offences committed including dynamite fishing are not often thoroughly investigated.

He added, although there are inspections carried out by the Sri Lanka Navy, the unavailability of an office results in several illegal acts in the waters, immensely affecting the reef.

 Tourism

Goreau said, Coral reefs are Sri Lanka’s major resource for marine eco-tourism. ‘’Increasing numbers of tourists want to see beautiful natural surroundings, and their preservation will enhance the range of options for tourists and the type and number of tourists who could be attracted’’ he said.

Deputy Director of Tourism, Asoka Perera said, the reefs at Hikkaduwa and Buona-Vista now have the potential to be ecotourism attractions. While the former is protected by the Wildlife Department, the latter is entirely unprotected.

Way Forward?

Goreau stated it will be important to push public education on the value of the reef, the factors affecting it, and the ways it could be protected. Much of this is being started by the Nature Conservation Group. ‘’People who have never seen underwater life live right above and damaging it inadvertently, need to see how the reef grows, and understand that a fish that is caught provides money once, but that one which swims around keeps bringing in more money with every tourist who sees it’’ he said.

Further he said, a detailed management plan should be drawn up as quickly as possible to protect this fragile and deteriorating resource that should involve local community groups, the National Aquatic Resources Agency, the Forestry Department, the Wildlife Department, the Port Authority, the Nature Conservation Group, the Department of Tourism, and local hotels in the Galle area.

‘’Hotels would greatly benefit by having a beautiful place to send tourists, and should be encouraged to become officially designated financial supporters of the Rumassala – Buona-Vista – Unawatuna Nature Park.

They could display posters and brochures and a plaque identifying them as sponsors. This would pay very strong dividends by attracting a different class of tourist who appreciates nature.

There is a strong worldwide trend towards ecotourism, especially among German tourists who are in their numbers in Sri Lanka, and such a park would be a strong attraction, as it is the only place where this could be done near the major tourist areas. However, unless this happens very soon, a priceless potential resource for Sri Lanka could soon be lost forever’’ he noted.

Buona-Vista – a priceless treasure

Buona Vista is one of the most important reefs remaining in Sri Lanka from the points of view of biodiversity and ecotourism. Replanting trees would allow development of nature tourism for foreigners and locals, and is the only place in Sri Lanka where people could enjoy both coral reefs and forests together. The legendary origin of the mountain is a priceless treasure for a nature park. The entire mountain and coral reef need to be protected in a single management unit, which should include the beaches and coral reefs on the other side of the mountain at Unawatuna. Such management would also need the power to control pollution entering the reefs from adjacent areas of the Galle harbour. If this area is protected and managed effectively it could become Sri Lanka’s finest ecotourism attraction, he said.

Hikkaduwa Coral Reef

Adaranga said, the Hikkaduwa Marine Protected Area is the only Marine Protected area in the South coast of Sri Lanka manned by a full-time Department of Wildlife Conservation staff.

This gives the site an advantage over other reef sites that the site can be easily monitored and managed with a better control of human impact. The Hikkaduwa reef is possibly the only reef that has zero pressure from artisanal fishing and exploitation for ornamental aquarium trade. This gives a unique advantage over other reefs that the coral cover restoration activities would be supported by other ecosystem functions and services which are healthier than most other southern coastal reefs, he said.

He said the Live coral substrate cover at Hikkaduwa reef dropped from around 60-70 per cent in 1996 to around 35 per cent due to the massive infestation of Halimeda algae and down to around 5 per cent post 1998 mass coral bleaching event.

‘’The event also exterminated the Staghorn coral Acropora Formosa, a keystone species of coral in most shallow southern reefs which in general comprised 40-50 per cent of reef corals. The series of subsequent bleaching events of 2010 and 2016 along with continued human pressure from tourist damage, boat strikes and pollution and the sand filling of the lagoon due to the construction of a breakwater on the northern boundary of the reef under the Hikkaduwa Fishery Harbour development caused further degradation of the reef and prevented recovery of the reef’’ he said.

 The depth of the reef reduced from the deeper zones within the reef that ranges over 10ft before to an average depth of 3-5 feet post the sand filling event. This killed off the lower parts of the corals by being covered by sand and increased the risk of siltation and suspended sand damage to the corals that were previously located high above the substrates as the sand level rose.

Loss of reef relief, habitat

This also caused a significant loss of reef relief and habitat loss. The reef has lost most of its structure and habitat creating corals like the Staghorn corals, the high digitate, larger foliaceus and table corals. Though a significant coral diversity is still present on the reef most of it is composed of encrusting, submissive types.

 Though foliaceous, digitate, tabulate coral species are still present on the reef they are scattered and found in low abundance. The large floor areas dominated by coral rubble deny stable viable substrates for survival of new recruitments of coral larvae settling into the reef. The reef surfaces contain a high level of silt deposits and the low relief of reef structures expose the surviving corals to high levels of siltation and suspended sand during storm surges, he said.

Goreau said, the Hikkaduwa and Buona-Vista reefs have however been subject to heavy utilisation and the corals are being threatened by multiplicity of factors including physical damage by trampling, anchors, boat groundings, and storms, by excessive amounts of sediment which block light and smother corals, overgrowth by weedy algae and other marine organisms, sewage pollution, oil pollution, marine disease and global warming.

BY Faadhila Thassim