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Challenges of marine management

2,374 km of coral reefs, 700,000 hectares of mangrove cover, over 2,500 species of fish, eight species of sea turtles…This backgrounder by Sudarshan Rodriguez and Aarthi Sridhar describes the complexity of India’s coastal ecosystems and outlines the challenges to these systems from habitat destruction, ineffective fisheries management, over-exploitation of bio-resources, pollution and weak implementation of laws

The Indian coastline has been in the news for several reasons, but in the varied imaginations of people from the hinterland it sometimes assumes a description that is flawed. Despite improved media attention to coastal biodiversity issues, despite  growing demands  from  fishworker communities for better coastal governance, and despite (or because of) television, for many people coastal areas still represent ‘pristine’ beaches and vast stretches of empty government wasteland that are being opportunistically used by the unfamiliar and generally ‘backward’ fishing community .

Far from being just an easy entry for terrorists or a space to set up tourist resorts and infrastructure projects, coastal ecosystems are dynamic social, cultural and ecological spaces. And although some people may consider this article a little too basic, we hope we can convey a more correct impression of our country’s coastal areas.

India’s coastline extends to around 8,000 km and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 2.02 million sq km adjoining the continental regions and offshore islands. There are 53 coastal districts in the maritime states and union territories, including the Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep groups of islands. Nearly 25% of the country’s population resides in these areas; about 340 communities are primarily occupied in marine and coastal fisheries. The wide range of important ecosystems characterising the coast includes estuaries, lagoons, mangroves, backwaters, salt marshes, rocky coasts, sandy stretches, and coral reefs.

Mangroves are an assemblage of different flowering plants that are able to grow in saline or brackish water along estuaries, deltas, backwaters, creeks, etc. In India, mangroves occur in habitats as varied as deltas, estuaries, backwaters and sheltered insular bays. The great river deltas of the Ganga, Brahmaputra (Sunderbans, West Bengal), Mahanadi (Bhitar Kanika, Orissa), Godavari and Krishna (Andhra Pradesh), Pichavaram and Gulf of Mannar (Tamil Nadu) feature mangrove formations along the east coast.

India’s total mangrove cover is approximately 700,000 hectares. There are 59 mangrove species belonging to 41 genera and 29 families present along the entire coast. The east coast mangroves afford a slightly better picture than the west coast mangroves, both in species composition and area covered. The west coast harbours 34 species, whereas 46 species exist along the east coast. The east coast, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, contributes about 82%, while the west coast supports about 18% of India’s mangroves.

The Indian Ocean region harbours some of the most diverse and extensive reefs, many of which are among the least scientifically known. In India, coral reefs are distributed along the east and west coasts, and all three major coral reef types (atoll, fringing and barrier) occur. The total area of coral reefs in India is estimated to be 2,374.9 sq km. The country’s mainland coast has two widely separated areas containing reefs: the Gulf of Kutch in the northwest, which has some of the most northerly reefs in the world, and Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar in the southeast. The absence of major reefs in the Bay of Bengal is attributed to the immense quantity of freshwater and silt brought down by rivers like the Ganga, Krishna and Godavari. The Andaman and Nicobars have fringing reefs around many islands, and a long barrier reef (329 km) along the west coast. The Lakshadweep has extensive atoll reefs but these are poorly researched; they may well prove to be the most diverse in India, and in the best condition. A recent study conducted by the Zoological Survey of India (Chennai), at Port Blair, reveals that the total number of species of scleractinian coral could be as high as 265 species.

Marine mammals include members of five different groups categorised under cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) and sirenians (manatees and dugongs). Of the 78 cetaceans and five sirenian species identified globally, 29 and one, respectively, exist in India.

Marine reptiles found in coastal and marine areas of India include sea turtles, crocodiles and sea snakes. Of the eight species of sea turtle, five are found along the Indian coastline --  Dermochelys coriacea (leatherback sea turtle), Chelonia mydas (green turtle), Eretmochelys imbricata (hawksbill), Caretta caretta (loggerhead sea turtle) and Lepidochelys olivacea (Olive Ridley). Three species of crocodile are found on the subcontinent -- saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), mugger (Crocodylus palustris) and gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). Twenty-five species of sea snakes, belonging to three families and five sub-families, have been documented in Indian waters. 

Birds both feed and breed near the sea. There are two main groups of birds along the Indian coast -- sea birds and water birds. Although somewhat arbitrary -- in this context sea birds are those that use marine waters as a food source for most of the year, while water birds are those that feed on or over inter-tidal areas, often for only part of the year -- the sea is important to both these groups. About 177 bird species are found in the mangrove forests of India. Kingfishers, herons, storks, sea eagles, kites, etc, are the dominant species observed in these systems.

A total of 2,546 fish species belonging to 969 genera, 254 families and 40 orders have been reported/recorded so far. Indian fish populations represent 11.72% of the world’s species, 23.96% of genera, 57% of families, and 80% of orders. India’s marine capture fish production was 1.10 million tonnes in 1970. With mechanisation, it reached 2.27 million tonnes in 1995-96, and showed signs of levelling off immediately thereafter, with annual growth rates oscillating between ± 5%. The working group constituted in 2000 by the Government of India to revalidate the potential of India’s marine fishery resources estimated the potential yield as 3.93 million tonnes.

Management of marine resources is inextricably linked to fisheries management.  Revenue earned from  marine and coastal systems, only in terms of fisheries, places  India third largest as a producer of fish and the seventh largest fisheries exporter globally, with exports alone touching over Rs 7,000 crore (Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries, GoI 2006). Therefore, marine biodiversity initiatives, or the use of non-fisheries resources, must take into account their impact on the country’s overall fisheries industry.

Fishing communities

As an occupation, fishing is said to pre-date settled agriculture, and, in the Indian context (by and large), it has been the occupation of a single caste dominating either village or region, unlike agriculture which has multi-caste structures and is based on hierarchy.  Over 10 million fisherfolk inhabit India’s coastal regions -- around 3,000 hamlets on the mainland, with an average of one village dotting the coast every two kilometres.

Fishing communities are organised and governed along caste lines and have traditional governance structures such as the caste panchayats in Tamil Nadu. The single caste demography has meant considerable autonomy and self-governance; fishing communities are therefore highly organised and controlled internally. Traditional fishing community institutions are responsible for maintaining village discipline by organising/presiding over social and religious events, dispensing justice, maintaining accounts, and serving as a bridge to the outside world. They resolve conflicts both within the village as well as between villages. They are also instrumental in governing commons (resources, social, cultural and economic).

Very little anthropological and ethnographic research and documentation has been carried out on India’s fishing castes and communities; most of what has been done has been geographically focused or caste-specific (for example, in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and small bits in Orissa). Fishing communities have shown a tremendous capacity to adapt and change their structure and functioning. Their traditional governance institutions (especially in Nagapattinam) displayed remarkable resilience during tsunami relief operations and the subsequent rehabilitation.

Fish workers have also organised under various social welfare and commercial associations. However, these communities have always been considered backward and have historically been denied the same degree of citizenship that communities on the hinterland enjoy. Education and awareness levels are fairly low among the active fisherfolk, although in the past few decades they have been mobilised and organised to demand their rights from the state and to protect their resources and access to the same. 

Conservation measures have led to various conflicts with fishing communities as they are often based on terrestrial models that have negative implications on the livelihoods of the fisherfolk.

The challenges of conservation

Marine and coastal ecosystems are some of the most dynamic and complex systems. Furthermore, they encompass multiple-use land, adding to their complexity. These are also much larger ecosystems and are often contiguous. What’s more, our understanding of them is weak compared to other ecosystems.

Coastal ecosystems face several conservation and management challenges:

Habitat destruction:  The driving force behind coastal degradation has been large development and infrastructure projects along the coast as well as unplanned and unregulated growth in coastal areas. Ecosystems and critical habitats that are constantly being challenged are mangrove forests, estuaries, mud-flats, coral reefs, small island ecosystems, coastal headlands and cliffs, coastal wetlands, sand dunes, etc.  Studies indicate a number of threats to marine habitats, especially the sea bed, from fishing methods such as bottom-trawling. The marine species affected are, consequently, soft-bottom communities, demersal fisheries, sea grass ecosystems, and corals. The ‘bycatch’ in fisheries, including marine mammals and sea turtles, has steadily increased. Land is scarce, and despite the 2004 tsunami coastal lands are being coveted by non-coastal communities. Non-traditional occupations have moved to the coast often taking recourse to legal modifications (such as IT industries, cement bagging plants, etc). Aquaculture, which was introduced as an ex-situ measure for harvesting marine species, especially prawns, is solely responsible for destroying large tracts of productive coastal land and mangroves.

Ineffective fisheries management: Large-scale mechanisation in the fisheries sector, introduced nearly 50 years ago, has had a huge impact on fish resources. Bottom-trawling has impacted lower fauna, hence the overall health of the ecosystem. Trawlers often operate near the shore due to poor enforcement and monitoring by the fisheries department, in spite of legislation being in place.

Over-exploitation of bio-resources: Living bio-resources found in the coastal zone are heavily exploited, and often the exploitation is unsustainable. This includes banned species such as sea cucumbers, molluscs and sea horses. There is practically no data available on the exploitation of any of these species.

Pollution: The coastal zone receives waste generated by a number of point and non-point sources, especially sewage, industrial effluents, sediment, and agricultural chemicals, notably fertilisers and pesticides. These contribute to the degradation of the quality of coastal waters. There is very poor monitoring and management of marine pollution. In most coastal cities, sewage is released into the sea untreated. There are no effective/appropriate seawater quality and emission standards.

 Weak implementation of laws: Over 25 amendments were made to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, most of which have considerably undermined its efficacy resulting in threats to coastal biodiversity and habitats. One such example is permission to allow Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the ‘no development zone’ of CRZ 3, thereby allowing “information technology, beach resorts and related recreational facilities in these regions”. IT parks do not require a shorefront; this is clear evidence of misutilisation of coastal resources. There has been a lot of construction activity along the coast, much of it completely illegal. And there has been no stock-taking of these violations in most states. Many of the constructions were carried out through habitat reclamation and destruction. Sand mining is also a grey area in CRZ implementation -- even where legal permission has been obtained, clearance criteria have not been adhered to and are rarely monitored. Unplanned and unregulated tourism is also taking a heavy toll on coastal ecosystems.

There is poor integration of marine and coastal biodiversity concerns in the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, and lack of awareness and sensitivity towards the issue of marine and coastal biodiversity among the judiciary, policymakers, decision-makers and administrators. These gaps extend to laws that govern conservation and management -- such as the CRZ -- which many of these stakeholders are in charge of implementing at the state or district level. Moreover, current legislation and institutional mechanisms for protected area conservation and fisheries are inadequate and do not accommodate contextual models and frameworks for fisheries management and marine conservation.

Knowledge and awareness: There are huge gaps in our knowledge and understanding of many aspects of marine and coastal biodiversity such as sea grasses, corals, impacts of climate change, etc. There are also gaps in documentation of the anthropological, socio–economic, indigenous knowledge and practices of coastal communities. Moreover, there is no single stakeholder or platform that provides coordination and knowledge-networking.

The way ahead

Several urgent requirements that stem from the above-mentioned issues need to be met to address the challenges of marine and coastal management.

Institutional capacity needs

Government departments that deal with the subject of fisheries, aquaculture, forests, environment, town planning, etc, as well as specialised agencies like the coastguard, shipping companies and port authorities, need to be brought into the capacity-building fold. Each of these institutions has its own capabilities, and mechanisms must be devised to enable them to share skills and information. For example, capacity-building in the fisheries department and research institutions to improve the quality and visibility of fisheries research, focusing on resource and stock assessment and management. The emphasis must be on integration of biodiversity and ecological elements in fisheries research. In addition, avenues should be created to properly use the information and strengths of government-supported research organisations as well as non-governmental researchers in biodiversity conservation and sustainable use. Another crucial need is a   system to manage marine and coastal pollution, with sustained programmes to monitor marine pollution and study the impact of the pollution on marine organisms and ecosystem health.

Systemic capacity needs

In many development-related laws there is very little incorporation of the value of marine and coastal conservation/biodiversity. The most important of all systemic needs is for the country to reinforce its commitment towards the conservation and sustainable management of resources through bold changes and reforms in its current conservation and environmental laws. The past few years have witnessed a dismantling of environmental safeguards; one can only hope that ignorance is what has driven these changes. There is a strong case to review policies relating to coastal and marine ecosystems, as well as to ensure that the mechanisms in place to implement these are robust and foolproof. This may involve having to rescind earlier amendments aimed at diluting these laws.

The political will and commitment to India’s biodiversity should be reflected in her laws and her programmes. Currently, both are inadequate, if not unsatisfactory, considering our natural resource wealth. Furthermore, there is a need for economic evaluation and ecological economics of marine, coastal biodiversity and ecosystem services and training and capacity-building of key institutions across the country. The programme must include tools and methodologies for the above, and also have an extensive outreach strategy for the public and decision-makers, administrators, government officials, etc.


  • Certain targeted initiatives must ensure the future conservation of coastal and marine systems. They include:
  • Review of marine protected areas: An urgent review based on field data is required to assess the benefits of this in-situ measure for local people and their rights over resources in these regions.
  • Community-based fisheries monitoring: Community-based fisheries monitoring programmes must be encouraged in various types of fisheries such as open seas, enclosed habitats like lagoons, coral reefs and estuaries, sea grass beds, and specialised fisheries like shark fisheries.
  • Community-based sea turtle conservation: Efforts are already underway in many areas to support community efforts in turtle conservation. However, these efforts need to be recognised with proper economic and other incentives. In many instances, merely recognising initiatives by the state and allowing them to go on is sufficient; in other areas economic incentives might be called for.
  • Studies on diversification of fisheries: Particularly for the trawling industry and   purseseine, ringseine (in Kerala) and shark fisheries, where local people have expressed an interest in diversification, socio-economic studies must be carried out.
  • Legal review of coastal and marine conservation and biodiversity policies: Such reviews must look at past implementation, current issues, and initiatives towards reform. They must also suggest possible mechanisms, processes and timeframes to enhance India’s legal regime for protection of her coastal and marine biodiversity. Such reviews should be accompanied by widespread public consultations.
  • Taxonomic projects: There is a dearth of basic taxonomic information on a large number of marine organisms including crabs, soft-bottom communities, mangrove associates and coral reef associates.
  • Data reliability: Fisheries departments must be trained to use internationally recognised methodologies for data collection. This data must be made available to the public through the electronic and print media.
  • Data-sharing: Research institutions should be supported to make reports and data available on public websites. This is an important requirement and could prevent a lot of ecological destruction through informed action.
  • Assessment of restoration projects and ex-situ projects: Projects such as mangrove restoration, coastal bio-shields and other related programmes must be subject to independent review and assessment. These should be made mandatory through policy requirements.
  • Judicial training: There is poor understanding of marine and coastal biodiversity issues and laws in the Indian judicial system. Programmes should be introduced to plug capacity gaps in the judiciary as there is a dire need for sensitisation, orientation and training in this group.
  • Guidance cell to assist in awareness programmes: A lot of money is spent on awareness programmes in our country. However, the government as well as independent NGOs must be encouraged to evaluate their awareness and educational programmes and develop guidance programmes to enhance communication.
  • Support to community and NGO initiatives: NGOs and local communities often have the expertise, the contacts, and better persuasive skills than government departments. The government should support the production of newsletters, posters and other communication media by NGOs and community organisations. The government should also concentrate on putting as much information as possible in the public realm.

(The information contained in this article has been summarised from the National Capacity Self-Assessment Thematic Assessment Report on Biodiversity Final Report, 2007, prepared by ATREE, UNDP and MoEF)

(Sudarshan Rodriguez heads the Programme on Communities, Networks and Conservation at Dakshin Foundation. His work focuses on trans-disciplinary action research, traditional governance institutions, community sovereignty, and commons. He is engaged in advocacy and networking with various stakeholders on the coast involved with coastal-marine conservation, rights and livelihoods)

(Aarthi Sridhar heads the Law and Environment Programme at Dakshin Foundation. Her work involves research and advocacy with coastal communities around issues of rights to natural resources and ideas of social and environmental justice)

Infochange News & Features, April 2010