Up until recently, not a lot was known about the Bar Reef in Kalpitiya. But by the time we learned its value, we’d nearly lost it forever.
The Bar Reef, located 2 km off the coast of Kalpitiya, is in fact the largest coral reef and the largest protected marine area in Sri Lanka.
While it was declared a marine sanctuary in 1992, the reef remained relatively unexplored or otherwise affected by human activity due to the then ongoing civil war. However, the reef has since taken a dramatic turn for the worst owing to the effects of human activity both on- and offshore as well as natural causes.
Today the reefs lie in an area surrounded by 10 buoys to demarcate the area as a No-Go Zone until the recovery of coral reefs. What’s more, a community effort with support from various national and international organizations is underway to help save it before it is too late.
“Yes, the reef was almost completely destroyed with only about 6% of it left alive,” said the Director of Planning at the District Secretariat Office, Puttalam, Mrs. Sandanayake. “UNDP and the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment got involved straight away, utilizing professors and scientists who have studied this subject greatly.
All stakeholders involved were informed of the situation after which we all came to an agreement to protect the reef. We even got the fishermen to stay away from the area, and it was reinforced by the navy, police, and the Divisional Secretariat, who do not allow anyone to cross those waters.”
A REEF UNDER THREAT
But what exactly is Kalpitiya’s Bar Reef recovering from?
According to the ranger in charge of Kalpitiya’s marine sanctuary, Mr. Morathenna, the reef was “isolated for a long time because it's about 300 km of sea space and not easy to access. After a while the communities started using it for fishing and other activities. It came to a point where everyone was overusing it instead of protecting it.”
However, it is not only direct human interaction that has caused the reef to deteriorate so severely. Another major threat to its survival comes from inland.
“This reef is connected to the Kala Oya,” Morathenna explains. “So the mud from the Oya and the Puttalam lagoon falls into the Bar Reef and harms it as well. We need to address this issue at the source.”
But the Kala Oya and Bar Reef have coexisted for hundreds of years with neither one posing a significant threat to the other. No damage to the reef as a result of sediment flow from the river has ever been documented until recently. The reason for this is the point where the Kala Oya meets the Indian Ocean was very heavily occupied by a mangrove swamp.
“The mangroves near the Kala Oya are endemic to that area,” says Morathenna. “They are identified as a threatened species. The mangroves in this area were cleared in the past few years for development and cultivation activities. When released, the pressure from the river mouth’s water increased due the lack of mangroves. This could also be a threat to biodiversity because the other flora and fauna in that space were extracted, too. The mangroves were initially removed to make space for prawn farming.
Sometimes people clear out when their prawn farm brings a loss and then we see mangroves slowly regrowing in that space. But it never grows back to its previous state.”
“Coral is very sensitive and needs sunlight to feed. Mud from various other locations spill into the ocean and end up blocking the sunlight. This is why mud is harmful to coral. It's very hard to control these things because the current changes often.
Moreover, coral reefs are also vulnerable to changes in ocean temperature. “Climate change is one of the main reasons for reef death, and next to it would be fishery activities,” said Morathenna.
In addition to rising ocean temperatures and sediment from nearby rivers, other human activity has had a more direct impact on the Bar Reef. Morathenna explained how illegal fishing methods such as dynamite fishing and the use of Laila or Surukku nets are problematic. Of these, Laila nets have been particularly devastating to the reef.
“Laila requires four to five boats, where one has the net and the other boats have three to four divers. They hunt fish in schools. The divers get in and signal towards where the net should be cast. Sometimes, if the fish put too much pressure on the net, they use a dynamite on them, too. This method not just affects the fish in the net, but also harms the surrounding fish within the blast radius. This method is very dangerous because it blasts away parts of the reef, too.”
Mrs. Sandanayake also pointed out a bad habit of the fishermen when it comes to their disposal of plastic waste. “The fishermen have a habit of throwing their plastic water bottles into the ocean. But since it floats, they have gotten used to filling the bottles with water before throwing it out. This means the bottles then sink to the bottom and affect the marine life near the reef. It's because of issues like this that we need to create awareness
With only 5 other people on his team, Morathenna’s office alone cannot fulfil the task of spreading awareness and committing the resources necessary to save and rehabilitate Kalpitiya’s Bar Reef. Hence, it was necessary to recruit the help of other individuals - divers, fishermen, snorkelers, hoteliers, and tour guides - to execute the Bar Reef Management Plan. To this end, ‘ESA project’ has been instrumental in working with local authorities to spread awareness about the reef and its value among the locals, who pledged their support to save it.
The Enhancing Biodiversity Conservation and Sustenance of Ecosystem Services in Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) project is an initiative of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment in collaboration with UNDP, the District and Divisional Secretariats, the Wildlife Conservation Department, the Wildlife Rangers, and the community, and funded by the Global Environment Facility.
40-year-old W. Maduraj Fernando (known as Raju) has been a fisherman in Kalpitiya for over 25 years. In that time, he gained a thorough understanding of how fishermen here think and operate.
“Fishermen are like the ‘veddas’ (indigenous people) of the sea,” he says. “They catch whatever they can as they are a hundred percent reliant on the catch of the day.”
Today, Raju is a dolphin and whale watching tour guide based in Kalpitiya. Raju works as a mutual contact between divers, fishermen, snorkelers, hoteliers and tour guides as part of the Bar Reef Management Plan.
“Together, we protect the reef, not because of any law, but because we love the ocean. It is our life,” he says.
Back when I was a fisherman, I too didn’t know the value of the reef. But now, through the UNDP and Environment ministry supported ESA project, I know the cost of not protecting it. So now we are rallying everyone together to help them understand that without this reef there will be nothing left for us.”
“At the end of the day I want my younger son to see what my older son saw at the reef years ago. It’s like a cemetery now – completely dead. I remember what it used to be like back in the day – a magical world!”
Raju and his 18-year-old nephew, Nimesh, now run the dolphin and whale watching tours together. Every time, just before they ride into the open waters of the Indian Ocean, they stop and take a few minutes to pray.
“We do this job with God. All our hope is in him. We pray that we come back safe. After all, we’re in His hands.”
Operating dolphin and whale watching tours has become a lucrative business for Raju and other marine tour guides. As a fisherman, Raju would make approximately Rs. 50,000 a month. Now, during peak season, he makes more than double this amount.
When they are off season, Raju and the other tour guides volunteer to clean the reef, plant new corals, monitor the regeneration of the reef, assist in setting up the buoys that mark the no-go zone, and keep watch over the reef to ensure no one trespasses.
Like Raju, many others have turned to marine tourism as an alternative source of income to fishing. But there are others who have been diving instructors from the start. Shanaka Dilshan Perera, 33, is one of them.
“I used to dive even during my O/Ls,” he said, “I looked forward to the weekend to dive with my dad because those days, fishing for bello and muhudu kudello was high in demand. Kalpitiya used to be the number one area for this kind of industry. Tourism wasn’t popular in these areas back then.”
Shanaka also pointed out that since tourism has picked up, it has proven to be a healthy source of income. “I opened up a site called ‘Scuba Diving Kalpitiya’ during this season for six months and I have about 120 google reviews—I get a lot of business through google reviews. This site focuses only on diving.”
“This programme has been good, we have quite a lot of work. We have about 80 hotels in the area, so this means that there should be at least two people in each room. I have all these records from 2012 to 2019—ones that I’ve updated myself—and each year shows an increase.”
According to Shanaka, the Bar Reef management plan met him and the tour guides not only to explain what needed to be done for the reef but also to come up with ideas on how to manage it as a sanctuary. Having lived most of their lives in and around Kalpitiya’s waters and witnessing the Bar Reef’s deterioration first hand, their input to the project was invaluable. They even volunteer themselves each year to clean up the reef before their tourist season starts.”
Unfortunately, not everyone in Kalpitiya’s fishing community has taken kindly to the Bar Reef conservation efforts. According to one scuba instructor who does not wish to be named, spoke of a harrowing experience. “One time, I spoke out against spearfishing. If spear fishing is stopped, then the reef can be saved. Every official came and spoke to us.
They wrote down pages and pages of information but ended up doing absolutely nothing about it; and once an officer is replaced, all that information is lost. After passing on this information to the minister representing the fisheries sector at the time, he immediately put a stop to spearfishing. After that, people started calling me and coming over to the house saying ‘You aren’t the only one who has a family to feed,’ and ‘Is it only your children that get to go to school?’ Reality is that I don’t want to lose my children trying to save the ocean. After this incident, I personally went to the minister and told him that spearfishing doesn’t harm the reef. I really had no choice.”
However, the overwhelming majority of Kalpitiya’s fishing and tourism community regard the Bar Reef as a national treasure and marine sanctuary that needs to be protected. Their efforts combined with support and instruction from UNDP, Ministry of Mahaweli Development & Environment, Department of Wild Life Conservation, the Sri Lanka Navy, ORCA, IUCN academia and other organizations have, over time, made a remarkable difference to the health of the reef.
“We are currently guiding the community on what they can do to preserve the reef,” said Morathenna, “The community has been very helpful and cooperative. They are also very experienced because they have lived by the sea for so long, making it very easy to work with them. It’s not just conservation, it’s conservation and protection because we believe in protecting what's left of it and developing it further.
“When it comes to protection, it’s usually related to the law. Conservation involves the reef and its wildlife. This reef almost died a few years ago and was announced dead, but we managed to bring ours back to life.”
The Bar Reef off the coast of Kalpitiya is the most bio-diverse coral formation in Sri Lanka, home to 156 species of coral and 283 species of fish. It has survived two major bleaching events, poor fishing practices, pollution, and natural disasters, and is still one of Sri Lanka’s most valuable natural resources.
With the reef at the centre of a conservation effort through sustainable development and community participation, perhaps it can finally be restored to its former glory.
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