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Sri Lanka’s dwindling coral reefs

For hundreds of years, coral reefs have been a valuable resource for the people of Sri Lanka, particularly those living along the coastal belt. Places such as Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, Trincomalee and the Bar-Reef in Kalpitiya are home to some of the most beautiful Coral Reefs in the world. However, irresponsible mining of corals have resulted in a huge loss of corals coupled with large scale environmental damage.

According to official estimates, every year nearly 10,000 tons of live corals are fragmented and mined and 80 percent of the country’s reefs are already damaged. Biologists have observed a reduction in coastal fish stocks as a direct result of coral mining. More damaging is the destruction of the natural breakwater. Environmentalists claim that the reefs and atolls off the coast provide the island with protection from erosion. They partially attribute large scale coral mining for the rapid sea erosion especially along the west coast.

Although legislation enacted under the Coast Conservation Act in 1984 has decreased coral mining to some extent, it has not helped to eliminate this practice.

Coral is used in the construction industry for making both building blocks and lime plaster. Approximately 90 percent of the lime used for construction purposes is extracted from coral, which is also used to reduce acidity in agricultural lands. The growth of the construction industry from the 1960’s has encouraged large scale coral mining, resulting in the destruction of living reefs.

There are many types of coral extraction in Sri Lanka including reef breaking, coral rubble from the beach, and back beach mining. Reefs are also blasted to provide navigation access to fishing boats.

According to a report published by the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, there are three major coral reef locations in Sri Lanka – one fringing Hikkaduwa (found on rocky substrates near shore); the second barrier is found in Vakarai and the third at Silavathurai. There are also several well-developed offshore coral reefs, particularly in the Gulf of Mannar and west of the Kalpitiya peninsula. A total of 68 indigenous coral varieties and 183 species have been recorded in Sri Lanka so far.

Although several marine areas have been identified by experts as deserving protection, currently there are only two areas that have been declared as marine sanctuaries.

One is the Hikkaduwa Marine Sanctuary located in the southern province, which is one of the most densely developed tourism sites in the country. This was the first national marine sanctuary established in 1979 and is 45 ha in extent, with about 25 ha of corals within it. The Bar Reef, located west of the Kalpitiya peninsula near Puttalam lagoon was declared a marine sanctuary in 1992. The total area of the sanctuary is 306 km2; the core Zone has an area of 70 km2 and supports true coral reefs.

The reefs are like tropical rain forests – they grow in otherwise barren areas and support many types of life. Coral is a living animal that builds upon itself; the living coral rests atop dead coral. Most miners are ignorant of this fact or they just don’t care; they mine both live and dead coral. According to environmentalists, if the live coral is mined the reef is destroyed. Likewise, if the dead coral is mined the reef loses its foundation and is again destroyed.

Scientists from the University of Newcastle studying similar instances of reef destruction have found that even two decades is not sufficient for the reef to start rebuilding itself. The same situation has been observed in the Caribbean and the Pacific leading to the creation of marine reserves and managed parks.

Coral reefs are rich in biodiversity and are important for the flourishing of flora and fauna, for containing coastal erosion, and for sustaining the coastal fishery. According to research studies, a single reef can be home to 3,000 different species, while one third of the world’s fish species depend on them. Coral reefs calm the energy of the waves, providing vital protection to shores.

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