Rebuilding coral reefs for fisheries

Thoothukudi [earlier Tuticorin] in southern Tamil Nadu has been renowned over the centuries for its pearl and fisheries wealth. But today it stands stripped of these natural resources largely due to commercial activity that could not be sustained. Natural coral reefs have been plundered and whole coastal communities are in poverty.

Chennai based M S Swaminathan Research Foundation [MSSRF] has now stepped in to remedy the damage to nature and society. On World Wetlands Day [Feb 3] it deployed a series of artificial reefs over a one square kilometer area , 14km off Therespuram fishing village. Over time these reefs are expected to be colonised by marine organisms and eventually become expanding natural coral reefs.

But this can happen only if people leave the reefs alone for a few years and then harvest them sustainably. MSSRF has worked out a scheme from the ground up involving the local population. First they were educated on the need for protection of the artificial reefs and the methods of sensible harvesting. A newly formed artificial reef society based in Therespuram will police the reef. Local trawler operators have promised to stay off the new reef grounds.

The idea of artificial reefs is not new. But world wide, the focus has been on remedying damaged coral reefs and to enhance scuba diving experience. The pioneering Indian effort is focused on sustainable economic development. The reefs are made of marine friendly concrete and weigh about 1.5 tonnes each. They are designed with openings and niches for organisms to colonise. Over time a whole marine ecosystem grows around the artificial reef and colonies of fish establish themselves.

When the reef is ready for harvesting, fishing will be done only by pole and line. To add value to the catch MSSRF has encouraged a local, women’s self help group to establish a fish pickling factory. The women have been trained by a large factory and their product will be branded and marketed by a Chennai based sea foods distributor. Thus the reef idea has been well thought through— from the sea bed to the supermarket shelves.

If the Therespuram experiment succeeds the reef idea will be taken to ten more villages. Luckily as costs go, the innovation is not expensive.