India’s ocean ecosystems that can sequester huge amounts of carbon to combat climate change need to be better conserved, along with stricter regulation of coastal development, but policymakers are ignoring this

Tiny carpet anemones on a blade of sea grass in Palk Bay (Photo by Sumantha Narayana)

With nearly 87% of oceans impacted by humans, the urgency to protect marine ecosystems has only increased — to safeguard not just livelihoods and wildlife, but to combat climate change as well, says a study by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Ocean and coastal preservation is an untapped, nature-based solution to climate change and should play a bigger role in global climate action under the Paris Agreement, Eliza Northrop, an associate of the World Resources Institute, said in a blog.

Northrop wrote that blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, sea grass meadows and kelp forests are 10 times more effective at sequestering carbon dioxide on a per area basis per year than boreal, temperate, or tropical forests, and about twice as effective at storing carbon in their soil and biomass. They also play a crucial role in protecting coastal infrastructure and communities from climate impacts, including storms and floods.

Trapping carbon

India’s coasts and the seas nearby have mangroves and sea grass that play a crucial role in trapping carbon. Also, oceans’ carbon sequestration is not limited to marine vegetation.

“Marine environments sequester more carbon than terrestrial ecosystems. It is not only vegetation but animal life also sequesters large chunks of carbon, for example coral reefs. Mud flats also recycle large chunks of carbon,” Deepak Apte, Director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and a marine biologist who has recorded over 5,000 dive hours and studied marine issues of India closely, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

“But with ocean acidification, we are reducing carbon sequestration capacity of our oceans. We must pull all stops to save our oceans. Our land is limited, 90% of which is occupied by ice caps, eight billion people and associated infrastructure. Our real answers for climate change mitigation lie mostly in oceans, considering it covers 70% of earth surface.”

Abused oceans

Despite the fact that oceans can play a critical role in offering climate solutions, they are being neglected, over-exploited and polluted, and are not considered a priority when it comes to formulating policies or executing them, experts say.

On one hand, increasing human pressures, large-scale fishing, coastal development, sea bed mining, underwater noise and marine plastic pollution are posing a grave danger to oceans. On the other, oceans are bearing the brunt of climate change as well. Ocean acidification due to absorption of excess carbon from the atmosphere is causing coral bleaching, resulting in loss of corals that help trap carbon.

A sea slug in the grass of the ocean floor in Palk Bay (Photo by Sumantha Narayana)

“Increasing sea temperatures is slowly taking a toll of the marine ecosystem, though there is a lack of studies on the issue in India. Sea grasses are very crucial for local fisheries, and fish catch is declining over the years, so much so that Tamil Nadu has banned fishing for two months every summer season which is also the breeding season for the fish,” Vedharajan Balaji, the Director of the Organization for Marine, Conservation, Awareness and Research (OMCAR), who has studied marine ecology in the Palk Bay that lies between southern India and Sri Lanka, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “After the 2004 tsunami, many organisations gave boats to local fishermen. There was a big surge in the number of fishing boats, which is also damaging the sea grass ecosystem and impacting marine life.”

Sea grasses suffer due to damages from large-scale trawling as well, scientists say.

Riches of Palk Bay

The 15,000 sq. km Palk Bay is rich in biodiversity and home to species like humpback whales, bottle-nosed dolphins, porpoises and the endangered dugongs. There are five districts in Tamil Nadu on the shores of Palk Bay. Around Rameswaram, a heritage site located in Ramanathapuram district, sea grass is abundant and extends up to 150 km along the coastline and 8 km into the sea. There are 14 species of sea grass in Palk Bay alone.

“If you imagine a water column 8 km wide and 150 km in length, that much of area is full of sea grass. It is like a huge paddy field under water,” Balaji said. “These grasses serve as the feeding ground for marine species like dugong, a threatened species. One dugong feeds on 50 kg of sea grass in a day. Threats to sea grasses mean threat for dugongs as well.”

Balaji, who is working with the local communities on sustainable fishing and livelihoods, has seen first-hand how human pressures on these fragile sea grasses have been increasing.

Ignored by policymakers

Despite the pressures on marine ecosystems important for slowing down climate change, India’s policies are overlooking this important role of oceans. Activists and experts have raised red flags over India’s new coastal regulation zone notification. The latest amendments aim to not just regularise existing illegal constructions in ecologically fragile coastal zones, but also aim to throw more coastal areas open for development projects.

Lagoon jellyfish, also known as golden medusa (Photo by Sumantha Narayana)

“We need to speak of impacts due to policy deficiencies. For example, unregulated coastal infrastructure can have severe consequences for near-shore ecosystems, thus directly affecting communities. The proposed Coastal Zone Notification 2018 will have long-term irreversible impacts on our near shore water and the consequences will spill over to our future generations,” Apte told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The dilution of NDZ (no development zone) to 50 m (from 200 m) is not just risky, it is suicidal. We are aware that sea level rise is a reality and while sea is coming towards land, we are moving close to sea, a sure recipe for disaster.”

Link with river linking

Even India’s contentious river-linking projects can have an impact on India’s marine ecology. “Every decision maker today is talking about linking rivers and state that we are wasting rainwater by allowing it to go to the sea. By not knowing how vital this runoff is for sea and coastal fishery, we are, knowingly or unknowingly, directly influencing the delicate balance of oceans,” said Apte. “The rainwater runoff not only takes fresh water to the sea, it also take nutrients from forests to the sea, thereby helping in sea productivity and assist fish spawning.”

It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the seas and degradation is already being seen in rapidly declining fish stocks across the globe. There is a need to bring more marine areas under protection, involve local communities in conservation and robust and skilled management of oceans to conserve these blue carbon ecosystems, experts say.

 

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