DWC needs separate Marine Unit to manage Marine National Parks

Pigeon Island had also faced destruction in the past. In early 1980, the reef was attacked by coral-eating star fish to the point of extinction, reducing the live coral cover considerably. Subsequently, the reef recovered. Coral scientists say that Pigeon Island corals, like any ecosystem, has the ability to recover, but points out the need for management measures to assist the recovery, as it is a slow and sensitive process.

Pigeon Island is one of the Marine National Parks under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), which had recently started issuing tickets for visitors to the island. Though they can do very little to prevent bleaching, they can definitely help in the recovery of Pigeon Island’s coral Reef. However, DWC activities are sadly restricted to issuing and supervision of tickets on the island, some foot-patrols on the beach, and a few boat trips. A DWC officer confirms that wildlife officers are unaware of the seriousness of the threat faced by underwater corals.

But they are not to be totally blamed. All DWC officers are trained to manage land-based national parks. But, if the two ecosystems are compared, destruction of the corals is similar to the destruction of half of Sinharaja forest, as coral reefs refuge a multitude of marine biodiversity- also known as the Rainforest of the ocean. But sadly this destruction is evident only to those who dive. Hence, DWC officers who do not dive or snorkel cannot monitor the underwater destruction.

At a recent biodiversity forum, it was queried as to how many DWC officers could actually swim. Diver-conservationist Dr Malik Fernando said at a Sustainable Biodiversity & Economic Development forum that they had trained a group of Hikkaduwa Wildlife Officers to dive, to monitor the reef, but all of them were transferred to another terrestrial National Park, wasting their effort. So, it is the time to establish a separate Marine Biodiversity Management Unit by the DWC, said Dr. Fernando. This unit should be given resources and should comprise of divers capable of monitoring issues related to marine ecosystems.

As a perfect example of underwater patrols, Marine Biologist Nishan Perera who dived off Pigeon Island last year, discovered illegal fishing activities going undetected even within the Marine National Park, where he came across a fish trap set up on top of the corals. Fishermen would have set it up in the morning or at night, when the DWC officers are not present at the beach. While humans can do very little to prevent coral bleaching, the DWC can definitely help in the recovery of the reef. Arresting illicit fishing is something that needs to be enforced immediately.

Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara of the University of Ruhuna, also revealed bad impacts of fishing. After corals die, many different algae such as coral polyps grow on them, and are found in many coral colonies, disrupting the settling of new coral colonies. But there are fish such as sea urchins, which feed on these algae such as coral polyps, contributing to the speedy recovery of the reef. But sea urchins are caught in quantities by fish collectors retarding the process of a faster recovery of the reef. Therefore it is important that illicit fishing be stopped.

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