Oceans are the greatest carbon sinks on Earth, host a vast range of biodiversity, and are vital to the lives and livelihoods of coastal populations around the globe. Blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrass beds sequester carbon and store it in their biomass and sediment, while oceans and coastal waters provide critical ecosystem services such as food, oxygen generation, and nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation.
However, the world’s oceans are also severely impacted by climate change. Coastal and marine ecosystems are threatened by ocean warming, acidification, and deoxygenation, as well as the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and the loss of marine species of animals and plants.
Coral reefs are ocean ecosystems that are not commonly counted as blue carbon ecosystems since they do not act as carbon sinks, owing to the calcification of certain corals which releases carbon. For this reason, the development, restoration, and sustainability of coral reefs are often excluded in blue carbon projects aiming to mitigate high carbon dioxide emissions through conservation and restoration efforts.
Nevertheless, the ability of coral reefs to adapt to and mitigate risks brought about by climate change that affect vulnerable coastal communities and biodiversity should not be underestimated. Coral reefs act as natural, low-crested, submerged breakwaters which provide flood reduction benefits through wave breaking and wave energy attenuation. The benefits of flood protection benefits afforded by coral reefs are estimated to be higher than traditional man-made wave-breaking infrastructure.
Hence, coral reefs can significantly benefit coastal communities, and studies indicate that the annual expected global damage from storms would triple and damage from flooding would double without reefs. They offer protection for essential public infrastructure like hospitals, schools, and roads which are usually the main focus and expense incurred by countries recovering from a natural disaster.
Coral reefs can also reduce the social vulnerability of coastal communities by acting as a source of food and income to sustain coastal economies and livelihoods. The increasing ability to quantify the resilience benefits of coral reefs has drawn attention and justification for the promotion of their conservation. A study in the Caribbean showed the potential for coral reefs to link up with innovative risk reduction financing products such as insurance. The development of global initiatives such as the InsuResilience Global Partnership should be supported to expand the variety of solutions available for coral reef protection and explore solutions that link risk finance and insurance mechanisms to nature-based resilience.
As a tropical island nation, Sri Lanka is home to an abundance of coral reefs rich in biodiversity, with over 180 hard coral reef species recorded island-wide. They are a valuable resource for the country’s coastal communities through coastal fisheries, contributes to coastal and marine biodiversity by sustaining habitats for flora and fauna, and help to contain coastal erosion.
Anthropogenic activities have destroyed and degraded Sri Lanka’s coral reefs over the past decades. Coral reefs were exploited aggressively and mined for their lime to be used in construction. In fact, 90% of the lime used in Sri Lanka’s construction industry is derived from corals. Coral reefs are also used as a source of inexpensive soil ameliorate to reduce acidity in agricultural lands. Dynamite fishing and the use of cyanide and other toxic chemicals in reef fishing has deteriorated coral reefs and eliminated several fish populations entirely.
Unsustainable tourism practices and pollution have a serious impact on Sri Lanka’s coral reefs, with unplanned tourism development putting a strain on the growth, development, and sustainability of coral reef ecosystems. Furthermore, the increase in domestic sewage, industrial discharge, agricultural waste, and other suspended sediments from the inland runoff blocks sunlight from reaching the coral reefs and can lead to their death.
Sri Lanka has an array of legislation that aims to protect coral reefs both directly and indirectly, with the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act and the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance as the two main pieces of legislation providing direct protection. However, the fact that protection for coral reefs in Sri Lanka is dispersed throughout multiple statutes creates a potential for overlapping or uncertain responsibilities of the different authorities involved.
The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act enables the relevant minister to declare any area of waters and land as a fisheries reserve, prohibiting unauthorised mining, collecting, and gathering of corals to ensure that coral growth is not adversely affected by human intervention, especially for the commercial use of corals. The Act requires a person to obtain a permit to mine, collect, or gather and process corals. Although it does not restrict non-profit organisations, academics, and other entities from conducting research and implementing coral rehabilitation programmes, administrative issues and delays can act as barriers for the cost-effective and timely implementation of coral rehabilitation and restoration activities.
The Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance also provides protection for coral reefs by allowing for an area containing coral reefs to be declared as a sanctuary, national park, or nature reserve. This can reduce or prevent entry of the public and unauthorised personnel into these declared areas. It also restricts the types of activities carried out within the declared area, including the collection or removal of corals which can seriously damage or destroy coral reef ecosystems.
In addition to these two acts, coral reefs enjoy indirect protection through other legislation such as the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Act. This Act contains provisions to survey the coastal zone, prepare coastal zone management plans, and regulate and control development activities within coastal zones.
Apart from protective legislation, there are many other solutions available to prevent or minimise the destruction of coral reefs. Alternatives to cyanide and dynamite fishing like fine mesh barrier nets that are draped over an area of coral reef or line fishing techniques to catch larger fish could be promoted. More stringent regulations or guidelines for tourism-related activities and pollution caused by hotels and tourism-related businesses could also reduce coral damage. In addition, it is possible to rehabilitate and restore degraded coral reefs and help coral ecosystems to re-grow on their own, for example through the sinking of concrete blocks and other support structures.
Education and training programmes for vulnerable communities whose income and livelihoods depend on coral-related activities like coral mining should be provided. This is already being done by the Department of Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management, which conducts a programme to educate and train police and communities in coastal regions.
Coral reefs are vital ocean ecosystems that provide key services to biodiversity, the environment, and human livelihoods. While they are severely threatened by the impacts of climate change, they also offer valuable nature-based solutions to adaptation and can increase the resilience of coastlines and coastal populations. While coral reefs in Sri Lanka have been diminished over past decades, they are protected under several laws and can be further preserved through education, awareness and training programmes, more stringent enforcement and regulations, changing of fishing practices, rehabilitation, reduction of pollution, and a shift to sustainable eco-tourism.
Micheal BW, Nadine H et.al, The Value of Reefs for Protecting the Most Vulnerable Populations in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Grenada (InsuResilience Global Partnership, 2020)
The World Bank, Sri Lanka: Managing Coastal Natural Wealth (World Bank Group, 2017)
Mallon J, Coral Reef Conservation and the Role of Blue Carbon (Operation Wallacea, 2018)
Herr D, Landis E, Coastal blue carbon ecosystems: Opportunities for Nationally Determined Contributions Policy Brief (IUCN, 2016)
Berg H, Ohman M et.al, ‘Environmental Economics of Coral Reef Destruction in Sri Lanka’  27(8) Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Website and Blogs
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Moore R, ‘Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape’ (Conservation International, 2020) <https://www.conservation.org/places/sulu-sulawesi-seascape> accessed 13 June 2020
Conservation International, ‘Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape’ (Conservation International, 2020) <https://www.conservation.org/places/Eastern-Tropical-Pacific-Seascape> accessed 14 June 2020
Slam.lk, ‘Corals & Coral Reefs’ (Slam.lk, 2011) <https://www.slam.lk/corals#:~:text=Passekudah%20and%20Trincomalee%20have%20the,like%20reefs%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.> accessed 8 July 2020
NOAA, ‘What is Blue Carbon?’ (NOAA, 2019) <https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html#:~:text=Blue%20carbon%20is%20simply%20the,world's%20ocean%20and%20coastal%20ecosystems.&text=The%20bigger%20picture%20of%20blue,then%20contribute%20to%20climate%20change.> accessed 8 July 2020
Dinethra Rodrigo is a policy analyst and knowledge content developer at SLYCAN Trust, and works on thematic areas of climate policy and law, climate and disaster risk finance and insurance, migration, education, coastal ecosystems and corals, and biodiversity. His areas of interest include environmental law, commercial and corporate law, international arbitration, energy, litigation, and data protection law. Dinethra graduated with a first-class degree in his Bachelor of Laws (LLB) at the University of Warwick. He has debated in Model United Nations Conferences, participated in the Warwick Death Penalty Project, worked as an intern at John Wilson Partners and as an associate for the University of Warwick Library, and was the campus ambassador for the Global Undergraduate Awards.