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Sunday, 23 June 2019 04:48

Conservation agencies should be under a single ministry, says former DWC DG

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Oshani Alwis
Marine biologist Nishan Perera dives into MPAs to look at corals

All conservation agencies should be under one ministry. In countries which manage their conservation sectors well, these agencies are under one ministry and that ministry does not have any other mandate other than conservation. As long as the sector is fragmented with different agencies having conflicting mandates, the problem will never be addressed.

These were the valuable suggestions of a former Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, when asked ‘What of the future?’ after a robust panel discussion on ‘Where is wildlife conservation today?’

Pointing out that most of the election manifestos in our country promise to bring all conservation-oriented agencies under one ministry, but when a party is elected this plan is usually thrown out, Dr. Pilapitiya said that the role of a minister is to give policy directions. “Unfortunately, politicians are involved in administrative and management decisions. In such a convoluted system, conservation obviously suffers.”

The panel discussion was held on May 29 in the Jasmine Room of the BMICH in Colombo 7, in connection with the 125th anniversary celebrations of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS).

Moderated by Dr. Pilapitiya, the four panellists dwelt on coral reefs (Nishan Perera); birds (Dr. Sampath Seneviratne); elephants (Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando) and leopards (Rukshan Jayewardene).

Looking at ‘Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as a tool for coral reef conservation in Sri Lanka’, marine biologist and underwater photographer Nishan Perera who is also Co-Founder of the Blue Resources Trust, posed the question: What is an MPA?

Quoting the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) definition, he said that it is “any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment”.

The benefits, he said, include:

Conservation - to conserve and manage critical species, ecosystems and commercial fish.
Enforcement - to concentrate management efforts into a relatively small area.
Nurseries - to have nurseries and breeding grounds for commercially-important or threatened species.
Spill-over - to provide spill-over benefits outside the MPA boundaries.
Livelihoods - to support livelihoods and income for communities and management.
Culture - to protect traditions and cultural heritage.
Education - to promote education, awareness and research.

Mr. Perera said that in Sri Lanka there are five MPAs covering more than 32,000 hectares and 12 coastal MPAs covering more than 75,000 hectares. The five are – Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary; Hikkaduwa National Park; Pigeon Island National Park; Rumassala Marine Sanctuary; and Kayankerni Marine Sanctuary.

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However, he lamented that the norm in Sri Lanka was small fragmented MPAs. They cover only 0.07% of the surface area and they are declared and managed without any information on ecology or biology.

Reiterating that a science-based rather than a popularity-based approach is essential, he called for the identification of critical habitats and resilient eco-systems which are important when considering the impacts of climate change.

“An MPA is an area of enforcement which gives us the opportunity to focus on management efforts and resources into one specific area. It is a refuge for animals to breed and restock populations,” he said, pointing out that there are benefits not only inside but also outside MPAs.

If there is a successful MPA, the fishing communities are able to have higher fish captures outside it. MPAs support livelihood and tourism in certain areas, said Mr. Perera.

On the ‘designing and management’ of an MPA, he stressed that it should be representative of all the habitats in the area, not just those that have glamour such as coral reefs or species such as whales and dolphins. It should be an eco-system based approach and not a species-based one.

He said: “MPAs should have a connectivity of eco-systems. Either it should be a large MPA or a network of small MPAs to make it more viable ecologically as fish do not always stick to boundaries. MPAs should also be inclusive of all user groups. Within a larger MPA, it is not only about conservation but also different users such as those in tourism, fisheries and research.”

He pointed out the need to have clear targets for conservation objectives in an MPA, which Sri Lanka did not have. “Saying we want to protect or conserve is a starting point, but we need to have targets where we want to be in three, five or 10 years.”

Diving deep into what seems like his favourite topic, Mr. Perera says that Sri Lanka’s five MPAs are primarily designed to protect coral reefs. They cover less than 1% of the country’s ocean area. Almost 30,500 hectares are within one MPA – the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary, while all the others make up 1,500 hectares and are small and fragmented MPAs.

Taking a close look at corals, he points out that the Pigeon Island National Park has live coral cover of 50% (considered the highest in Sri Lanka within an MPA); the most-recently declared Kayankerni Marine Sanctuary has 40%; the Hikkaduwa National Park has only 15%; the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary has 7%; and the Rumassala Marine Sanctuary has 6%. Around 30% of live coral cover is deemed “good”.

Human impacts of over-fishing, pollution and unregulated tourism have directly affected coral cover, while coral bleaching is a natural cause of coral destruction, an event not specific to Sri Lanka. It is caused by warmer ocean temperatures, an indirect impact of climate change, which leads to the corals losing their natural colours, turning white and dying off.

“During the mass coral bleaching around the world in 1998 and 2016, Sri Lanka was affected majorly. Managing climate change is necessary – it is not about the reef which has the highest coral cover, it is about which reef is resilient, can stand these stresses and recover better. To identify these resilience factors, we need better research,” he said.

Referring to the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary, Mr. Perera said that it used to have high coral cover of 78%-80% as there was no tourism or much fishing those days. Yet no management measures were declared. In 1998, the live coral cover dropped to 1% due to a global coral bleaching event and the reef almost died. Since then the reef has gone through a natural recovery. In 2016, when the last bleaching happened, the coral cover decreased to 7%.