Close to 25 percent of the marine life in our planet lives around coral reefs. This makes coral reefs one of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems. Rising temperatures due to global warming and climate change have put these natural habitats at risk; a vast number of coral reefs around the world are threatened with coral bleaching and some are damaged beyond repair. Overfishing, destructive fishing practices such as dynamite fishing and bottom trawling have also resulted in the destruction of these marine eco-systems.
Sri Lanka's coastal region contributes to the livelihood of almost one third of its population where a majority of people depend on fishing or related activities. Coastal and marine sector contribute to more than 65 percent of total fish production and when taken as a whole, provide almost two thirds of the nation’s animal protein consumption. The decline of coral reefs will have an impact on the ecology as well as on the economy of a coastal nation like Sri Lanka where a large number of people live near corals, relying on them for food, protection from storm surges and depend on the income that tourism brings.
In December 2015, Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the significant international climate agreement widely known as the Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UNFCCC. This agreement was designed to build up a strong response to the threat of climate change by keeping the global average temperature well below 2 degrees Celsius and to take all measures to limit the temperature increase even further down to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Prior to the Paris Agreement, during the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19), UNFCCC invited all member states to communicate their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which later became their first NDCs after the ratification of the Paris Agreement. Sri Lanka submitted its INDCs in 2016, which are now called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and include actions that focus on 14 sectors including the coastal and marine sector, and prioritise habitat restoration including coral eco-systems.
The Paris Agreement requests all Parties to prepare, communicate and maintain their post-2020 climate goals and actions, known as NDCs to contribute to achieving the above mentioned objective. Article 7.9 of the Agreement also states that all Parties shall, as appropriate, engage in the formulation and implementation of national adaptation planning processes, such as the national adaptation plan (NAP) process.
Sri Lanka has formulated its NAP, which was submitted to the UNFCCC in 2016. It covers adaptation needs of key vulnerable sectors and cross-cutting national needs of adaptation, including the coastal and marine sector with coral restoration, conservation and managing coral reefs, sea grass and sand dunes in sensitive areas.
Reviewing NDCs and NAPs of Sri Lanka
A set of consultations to review the NDCs and the NAP were held in March 2019 at the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment in collaboration with SLYCAN trust. The consultation was held with the objectives of reviewing the NDCs based on the activities conducted in Sri Lanka on climate change, to enhance climate action, and to add relevant aspects to them based on contextual changes in Sri Lanka since the submission of the first NDCs. Capacity building, research in connection with climate change, gaps in laws and policies relation to climate related activities in each sector were some of the key elements of focus.
The consultation on coastal and marine sector was of much importance as both government and non-government experts shed light on certain issues that the marine coastal and fisheries sector faces due to climate change. Prioritizing on habitat restoration and implementing new legal policies, rules and regulations for habitat restoration was one of the key areas that were discussed. Suggestions were also made to include the above proposals as part of the NAP of Sri Lanka.
During the consultation the experts further discussed the importance of protecting our coral reefs and suggested to create artificial coral reefs in areas where corals have already depleted. The value of shipwrecks as artificial coral reefs, protection and promotion of shipwreck sites was one of the highlights of this discussion.
Shipwrecks are said to be the best artificial coral reefs in the world making them the most hospitable environment for marine life in the ocean. Where-ever a shipwreck may be either deep down in the bottom of the ocean or in a sandy sea bed close to the shore, it will always attract marine life much like a coral reef. It normally takes three to four weeks for a shipwreck to transform in to a mini marine sanctuary.
A majority of artificial reefs around the world are created by sinking large pieces of outdated or damaged equipment into the ocean, such as naval ships, tanks, buses and materials such as rocks, cinder blocks and old tires. There are companies who are now specialized in creating artificial coral reefs mainly created out of limestone, concrete and steel.
The Florida Keys national marine sanctuary in the United States of America comprises of several decommissioned vessels that were sunk in specific areas to promote diving and other fishing related activities. Among the shipwrecks, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane has become an underwater sanctuary for sea life and a hot spot for divers around the world.
Sri Lanka also has many ships sunk during the colonial era scattered around the island with an enormous historic and environmental value. Among the most well-known shipwrecks are the Conch in Hikkaduwa, SS Rangoon in Unawatuna, British Sargent Pasikuda, HMS Hermes in Batticaloa, Colombo Barge and MV Cordiality off the coast of Pulmudai. These wrecks have attracted new sea life and recent research and data gathered from divers suggest that shipwrecks are among one of best methods in preserving coral life.
Though shipwrecks may provide a safe haven to marine life, these sleeping giants are now under threat and should be protected from human activities. Shipwrecks are the main target of racketeers who are in search of scrap metal, who salvage the wrecks for scrap metal. The shipwreck known as MV Cordiality in Pulmudai was once teeming with marine life. Unfortunately, part of the ship was taken off and was salvaged. Another wreck close to Hikkaduwa was also under threat but with the help of local organizations and the public, the wreck was saved.
Under the domestic legal framework any ship older than 100 years cannot be salvaged but with increasing demand for iron and salvaging wrecks on the rise, the prevailing laws and regulations may not be sufficient enough to protect shipwrecks.
Shipwrecks consist of valuable metals such as brass, copper and people use dynamite to break these parts destroying the eco-system surrounding the wreck. Fishermen and marine experts have already experienced a decline of fish population surrounding the island. Removing and destroying wrecks for scrap metal would destroy good spawning grounds and possible fishing grounds and would eventually destroy the whole marine ecosystem. If the reefs disappear, hunger, poverty, political and economic instability would be inevitable. If commonly consumed, fish and other marine creatures such as crabs, oysters, and lobsters will disappear and as a result, more than 50 percent of the Sri Lankan population would struggle to meet the needs of their daily protein intake. Fishermen will lose their livelihoods and will be forced to leave their homes in search of new jobs. Therefore the authorities have a duty to protect shipwrecks and to make the public aware about the higher economic benefits that can be gained through preserving these shipwrecks.
The potential in the numerous shipwrecks found in Sri Lanka’s surrounding waters to serve as a fertile ground for the conservation of the marine eco-system remains largely untapped. Shipwrecks attract marine life and act as a foundation for new coral species. Additionally, such an effort to protect shipwreck sites would largely contribute towards the growth in the country’s eco-tourism industry.
Implementation of Sri Lanka’s coastal and marine sector NDCs including the identification of suitable sites for conservation by using scientific methods, a resurvey and mapping of the coastal habitats including coral reefs in particular for the purpose restoration, conservation and management of coral eco-system would encompass the protection of shipwreck sites as an integral part of the process. Accordingly, the review process of the above NDCs would further ensure that the progress achieved in these efforts would be sustained.
Among steps which could be introduced are regulations to protect shipwrecks sites along with awareness campaigns and capacity building programs to expound their use in this endeavor. Protecting and preserving these historic monuments beneath the ocean would thus ensure a more sustainable and an eco-friendly economy and an effective means to fight the nefarious effects of climate change on marine life and environment.
Malintha Halkewela is an attorney-at-law, and a researcher focusing on issues related to climate change, sustainable development, environmental protection and biodiversity. He has an LL.B from University of London, and a BSc from University of Ruhuna, and a post graduate diploma in shipping law and Practice. His present research work includes legal and policy gap analysis related to the implementation of nationally determined contributions on climate change for Sri Lanka.