Expedition Angria Bank

Edited version first published in Sanctuary Asia.

When you think of coral reefs in India- Andamans, Lakshadweep, Gulf of Mannar and Gulf of Kutch is what comes to mind, but there are other regions that are largely unheard of and neglected due to their inaccessibility. One such area is Angria Bank, located approximately 65 nautical miles offshore from Vijaydurg, Maharashtra along the west coast of India. Angria Bank is a submerged plateau, which means, it is a shallow region that has formed during the holocene sea-level rise thousands of years ago. Historical records indicate that the area was a stronghold of Kanhoji Angre, who served as one of the first Admirals under the Maratha Emperor, Chhatrapati Shivaji. Angre used the submerged bank as battleground where he fought against enemy ships and protected the Maratha empire from foreign invasions.

Even though visiting Angria Bank has always been on the radar, the real impetus came when in July 2019 the former Additional Chief Conservator of Forests, Mr N. Vasudevan convinced us to visit the area. Even back then it appeared to be a far-fetched goal, but with encouragement from the Country Director of WCS-India, Ms. Prakriti Srivastava, we progressed towards executing the expedition Angria.

To begin the process, we approached all seaworthy boats along the coast of Maharashtra. A few agreed, but no one gave a definitive answer. We then reached out to several research institutions and pitched the idea of a joint expedition. Dr M. Sudhakar, the former Director of the Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology (CMLRE) had the immense foresight to understand the significance of the expedition. He agreed to partner with us by providing the support of their research vessel FORV Sagar Sampada, 72.5 m long ship built in 1984 that is equipped to carry out multidisciplinary research expeditions from oceanography and marine biology to fishery science.  Having secured this component essential to the expedition, we approached partner organisations and individuals who would contribute to the success of the expedition. Our team organised a tentative itinerary, survey plan, expedition team and necessary SCUBA and research equipment on a one-week notice. On 16th December 2019, we assembled at the Kochi port to board FORV Sagar Sampada and spent 2 days planning finer details of the expedition. By the time we got the clearance from the port authority and boarded the ship it was noon of 18th December. Loading of SCUBA tanks, dive gear took almost 3 hrs, and by 5 in the evening we were officially onboard the ship. The Captain of the vessel, Mr. Pradeep Chanan, and the Chief Scientist of the expedition Dr Hashim Manjebrayakath who works with CMLRE along with 29 ship crew members welcomed us onboard.

The ship had all necessities onboard, which included fancy cabins, helicopter pad for safety air evacuation and all means of recreation- from table tennis to a TV room. The kitchen was stocked with fresh supplies of vegetables and meat along with fruits and variety of beverages. As the ship is operated by the Shipping Corporation of India, under the Government of India, we had to follow the fixed timings for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After a brief introductory session, dos-and-don’t[1] and a tour of the ship, the Captain announced that we will be leaving the port with the first ray of light. While the ship stayed anchored at the port, we got into the planning phase that was ahead of us.

Expedition team descending to explore reefs at Angria Bank

Journey into the sea

Next morning, we were up before dawn. A beautiful morning sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea. About a mile from the shore a small speed boat approached us with great speed. It was a pilot boat that was escorting us out of the Kochi harbour. The officers in their uniforms seemed busy as they conversed loudly over their walkie talkie with the ground staff who were pulling up long ropes and a metallic anchor. The senior aged ship Captain was manoeuvring from the main deck of the ship, “Port forward and aft, port forward and aft”, a common vernacular used when the ship leaves the port.

Within 15 minutes of leaving the port, we sighted a pod of dolphins. Marine mammal experts in our group, Abhishek Jamalabad and Avik Banerjee identified them as Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. They swam freely displaying, playing, idling and feeding. We were captivated by these mammals and the serenity of the surrounding sea. The estimated journey to Angria Bank was 52 hours, which gave us ample amount of time for planning and preparation. After 6 hours and 30 nautical miles, the cell phone range had dropped and so did the sight of land. We were far beyond internet searches and android apps. With a gentle breeze and a relatively smooth sea, Sagar Sampada moved at a steady speed of 7-8 nm/hr.

For marine mammal survey, we used double observer survey method to look-out for dolphins.  During these surveys, two primary observers (one each on the port and starboard sides) used the Big Eye binoculars mounted on the vessel bridge to observe, identify and count birds and marine mammals; whereas other observers used handheld binoculars and assisted the main observers in spotting individual dolphins. We took turns for the marine mammal survey in shifts till dusk but had no luck in sighting any dolphins. The night came in early and soon we were sailing in darkness under the canopy of a million stars. Cirrus clouds, constellations of stars, long strides of flying fish, dark blue water and pleasant swaying of the ship was mesmerising. By the second day, we had crossed the continental shelf and the colour of the water had turned much darker. Occasional terns, a few ships at a distance and the endless sea had engulfed us. We continued our lookout for dolphins and other mammals though the Big Eye binoculars. The wind was against us; we were still several hours from reaching Angria Bank. The occasionally flying fish would glide above the surface for long distances by touching the water surface intermittently. We spotted many gulls, petrels and skuas and finally in the evening we were lucky to spot a pair of pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and a bottlenose dolphin that spent almost 10 minutes riding the bow.

On our third day, it felt as if we were in the middle of the ocean. The sea was exceptionally calm. The texture and colour of the water was clear, a wonderful blue. At 10 in the morning, the captain announced that we were going to reach Angria Bank in 30 minutes and our eyes kindled with excitement.

Time spent at Angria Bank

As the popular saying goes- in military operations, nothings goes according to the plan, perhaps that saying is apt for field biology as well. In thirty-four years of operational history of the research vessel FORV Sagar Sampada, no work has been carried out that involved SCUBA diving and as none of us had ever dived off from a big ship so we had to learn everything through trial and error. As per the dive plan, the first group of divers got ready for an exploratory dive. In excitement, one person jumped off the ship with all SCUBA gear and others followed, however the outboard engine did not start on time drifting all divers in different directions on the water surface with strong currents. There was overall panic, with people in water and people onboard, luckily the inflatable engine started working. Just when we were about to dive, one of our colleagues got stung by a jellyfish and we had to abort the dive. After giving the first aid treatment for the sting, we changed our dive plan and followed a strategy that involved getting down the pilot ladder into an inflatable boat, lowering of the SCUBA gear into the smaller inflatable boat, and then search for respective sites via hand handheld GPS and depth finder.

On our first exploratory dive, it took us nearly 30 minutes to find a site where the depth was less than 28 metres. As we plunged into the crystal-clear water, everything seemed quiet and we couldn’t hear anything other than the sound of breathing in the form of bubbles. Once we hit the bottom, we were greeted by a school of giant silver-fin jacks and barracudas that appeared dappled in the sunlight. A curious groupers were gliding past and at the sea bottom, there was a symphony of multicoloured reef fish. We continued swimming in the dense thicket of reef edge. There was a profusion of colours- vermilion red, canary yellow, citron orange, royal purple and an electric blue sea. We watched grouper fish and snapper fish jostle for space amongst the coral crevices, as if they were in a game of musical chairs, moving-in-and-out of coral crevices. After 18 minutes and 2 safety stops, we surfaced with a big smile pasted on our faces.

Execution of surveys

Navigating an unmapped habitat meant that there would be limited scope for predicting what was underwater. The average depth of the bank was more than 25 metres at most sites, which constrained the time we could spend underwater. As per the dive & survey plan, five of us were involved in data collection, while one person remained on the inflatable rib to maintain contact between the dive team and FORV Sagar Sampada. Every person was responsible for completion of assigned tasks. Besides filming and taking pictures of marine biodiversity, we were involved in laying transect tapes, collecting data on reef fish, invertebrates and corals and algae found at Angria Bank.

The reef we observed was different compared to the reefs we were used to diving in. A few sites were full of corals and marine life, whereas others were covered with dense macroalgae. Corals were found everywhere, interspersed with algae and sand, and on many dives, we got hit by cold water currents and intense swells that were difficult to manoeuvre. After every dive, we took a good one-hour safety stop by following our dive computer safety algorithms. Every day we got to witness something new and unusual and the visibility stayed unchanged. At many sites red whip corals rose up like lilies beneath the fans and a host of small fish went about their business in between. There were thousands of fishes and invertebrates of different shapes and sizes and colours- all busy in rigmarole of their daily life. Grouper fish were most abundant at most sites. Eagle rays swooped in, moving like lofty birds of the sky. Large tunas and sharks cut the water above us as we crawled through underwater rocks to avoid being blown away by raging currents. Morey eels, scorpionfish, wrasses, and thousands of fish kept looking at us as if we are alien in their space.

Refilling of SCUBA tanks, lowering the gear to the inflatable boat, washing cameras, dive gear, data entries and intense discussions on improvising based on experience of previous dives took most of our evening and dinner sessions. Oranges, dry fruits and desi farsaan kept us going between the dives. Post dinner the ship was manoeuvred across the length and breadth by following structured transects. We used the Electronic Depth Profiler (EDP) onboard the FORV Sagar Sampada and mapped the floor of Angria Bank. The bank was found to be ranging in depths from 16m – 32m revealing an undulated bed, whose average depth was recorded to be 24m. The edges of the bank recorded having a sudden change in depth from 28m to about 70 – 300m.

Sea of change

After few days, the weather had changed. The wind had picked up and the waves were hitting the ship from the starboard side. We stayed strong and undeterred, and regrouped with a new dive plan. As per the new plan, we had to buck-up in terms of our reflexes, especially while lowering the inflatable boat to entering the water column from the inflatable boat. The most experienced amongst us dived whereas; others gave support in planning the dives. The surface currents were strong, but once we hit the ground, the sea was mostly calm. We continued our surveys by exploring new sites. Our days began with the sun’s first ray and ended with the last. Every day we would complete survey and exploration of three to four sites. At few sites it felt as if we were in the middle of an action packed James Bond movie: big fish chasing small fish, sharks cruising in search of prey and fish moving in and out of coral crevices like rush hour commuters coming out of a subway. Whereas at others, all we got to see was sand and vast stretches of macro algae, but even then, gentle swaying of algaewas as enthralling as seeing many fish underwater. On one occasion the strong bottom current swept us along and drifted us away. When we surfaced from the dive, the inflatable boat or the big ship was nowhere in sight. We held onto each other’s hands and legs to make a human chain to ensure that we were not swept farther away. To our luck the boat spotted us through the binoculars and came to our rescue. Whereas another time, we surfaced very close to the ship and we scrambled to get ourselves out of the way and far from the vessel in search for the inflatable boat. Luckily the inflatable boat was close by and we were rescued on time. As the days went by, it felt as if diving every day is a new normal and the stable land is out there somewhere, marked on the map far away. At the onset of our 3rd dive trip of the day, the propeller of inflatable boat fell off and the expedition ended, but our enthusiasm stayed.

The return journey comprised of discussions revolving around the time spent at sea, watching the sunrise, listening to the sound of the waves, engaging in inspirational discussions, marvelling at the grace of the marine wildlife we witnessed. The expedition bestowed us with a unique window to explore the reefs and associated marine life that is still intact and thriving. We completed 66 dives and observed more than 1500 corals, approximately 5000 reef fish, 500 plus invertebrates, many dolphins, sharks, sting and eagle rays, endless stretches of algae and colourful reefs. Our team added to several new records and got a glimpse of once unknown marine life that exists out there. With 14 expedition team members,  16 SCUBA cylinders, 6 underwater cameras, 39 crew members, 79.5 m long FORV Sagar Sampada, tons of adrenaline rush in the background of white dappled sunlight, dolphins, and an electric blue sea we returned back to Kochi harbour.

While the reefs around the world, including that of Great Barrier Reefs, are grappling with coral mortality due to climate change, storm, cyclones and series of bleaching events, how the reefs and marine life at Angria Bank have thrived is a real mystery. We have now put together this information in the form of report, but there is plenty to be done. What we know today is that mysteries of Angria Bank are as deep as our oceans. The hope is that the expedition findings will highlight the importance of conserving this unique ecosystem and create a roadmap for its conservation.

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[1] Captain explained “man overboard” as an emergency but the whole operation involved diving.

“Barking dogs, seldom bite”

If you are a cyclist or a jogger, then getting chased by dogs is something you can’t avoid. I have been chased by dogs frequently. After a few narrow escapes, I have faced them with dignity and have now mastered the art of handling vicious dogs.

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Here are nine ways of tackling dogs when chased:

  1. Get off the bike: When you are on a cycle or running, you may think by speeding-up, you can outrun a dog. Sorry to say, but dogs can often run faster than your thoughts. While that is a matter of debate, keep in mind the other dangers associated with fleeing. Once while cycling, a dog chased me. As a reflex, I sped up as if there was no tomorrow, but unfortunately lost control on the gravel and fell into a gutter. I bruised my knees and elbows. The dog that was chasing me came towards me. “Bhow, bhow, ” he said. He stood right there, and stared at me, wagged his tail, and walked away.
  2. Have a conversation with dogs: Dogs are social animals. We often refer them to as humans’ best friend. Most dogs understand our language perfectly well even when we think they don’t. Now, when I get chased by dogs, I get off my bike and often have a long conversation with them. I explain to them what I am going through, and how I am no different from them. In listening, they often get pacified and finally wag their tail, and walk away.
  3. If a dog is barking at you, bark back: One way to dodge the wrath of dogs when they are barking on top their voice is by barking back and establishing that you are an alpha that can’t be messed with. Establish dominance. Dogs are pack animals and they have an innate need to show their dominance. After all, it’s all about ‘territory’. The reason behind most dogfights or displays of aggression is usually related to guarding their territory. If you listen carefully, there are different types of barks, and each bark has a meaning and purpose. Listen to their barks and notice the nuances in their frequency. Some dogs howl, whereas others give short bursts of barks, and then there are those that don’t bark at all. Understand which dog will bark and which dog will chase. Fear dogs that don’t bark; they mean business.
  4. Follow a rag-picker: For a rag-picker getting chased, or barked at by dogs, is an occupational hazard. Experienced rag pickers across most Indian cities have great wisdom in handling aggressive dogs. In every gully they enter, they invariably get barked at by dogs of different sizes. At times dogs come close to biting them, but most rag pickers stay calm and composed and DO NOT REACT. They often carry a stick or weapon that they use only when the situation gets out of hand. Dogs can sense fear as much as you can. Most Indian dogs have been chased or pelted by neighbouring kids. I remember when I was a child my friends would collect stones on the way back from school and throw them at dogs. The winner was the one whose stone got the loudest yelp. They imbibe the memory of this trauma, and the moment they see a human being with a stick, they get the message to stay away.
  5. Identify areas in your neighbourhood and categorise these areas into low, medium and high-risk areas: Near my workplace and stay, there are three areas where I travel frequently. The ‘Sahakar Nagar’ dogs are relatively friendly. I have categorised this area as a ‘low risk’ area. Then there is the ‘Canara Bank Layout’, where there are a few streets where dog attacks are common. The riskiest area in the neighbourhood is the ‘Judicial Layout’, where I have had a narrow escape on several occasions. I have categorised this area as a ‘high risk’ area. I am always mentally prepared when I have to cycle in these areas. I can also predict which dog will attempt an attack, and which one will only bark from a distance.
  6. Cycle or walk with a friend or group of friends: Unity in numbers. Dogs are pack animals and they understand the meaning of a pack. Dogs often chase people who are travelling alone. If you have an option, then walk, run, or cycle with friends.
  7. Get drunk when you travel the lane frequented by dogs: Thanks to the adrenaline rush that booze provides, it can give you a great sense of courage. No matter how many dogs chase you, you can face them with valour and dignity. Also, dogs can sense when the person is drunk, and they are wary of drunk people as they can often be more dangerous to them than sober people.
  8. Start dancing on the road: Dogs can’t predict uncanny absurd behaviour. Based on their experience, they are expecting you to run for your life when chased. Unexpected dancing on the road can puzzle dogs and the chances of being left alone are higher. But remember, that this should only a last resort. I won’t advise you to resort to dancing unless necessary.

Thoughts on visiting Bangaram island to attend ‘STAPCOR’

The sea was exceptionally calm and the early morning sun was shining in the horizon attempting to absorb deep blue water. The boat chummed at a steady speed and half an hour later, we entered the lagoon of Bangaram and Tinnakara islands, a part of the Lakshadweep archipelago, quintessential postcard-perfect islands which are as unreal as our dreams.

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Quintessential postcard-perfect island–Tinnakara

I was visiting the islands to attend the International Conference on Status and Protection of Coral Reefs 2018 referred to as STAPCOR. Not only was the conference unexpected, from my perspective, so was the array of new experiences that the pretext of attending conference would allow me to have!

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View of Bangaram Island

I, along with 30 participants boarded a ship from Kochi by afternoon and next day early morning we got off onto another small boat, which took us to the final destination and main venue of the conference—Bangaram island. The first view of these islands was mesmerizing. Turquoise blue water, spread between the lagoons and the white sand were soothing the eyes. Once on the island, Abdu Koya welcomed the participants and briefed about the conference schedule. Most participants were staying at Bangaram Island, but students stay was arranged at Tinnakara Island, which is approximately 3 to 4 km from Bangaram Island. After heavy breakfast at the island resort, a boy called Rahim ferried us across the turquoise blue lagoon from Bangaram to Tinnakara.

A stay at Tinnakara was very special. It was a retreat nestled in traditional wooden, woven, and palm-thatched accommodation affording amazing views of the bright turquoise sea as they share a common lagoon. All the rooms had their own verandas tucked only a few feet from the gently lapping shore.  Skimming over the aquamarine seas, past draping coastal vegetation, the islands is shaped like a pirate ship, where sadly no Johnny Depp’s yet been spotted. Soft green weedy vegetation covered the coastal area and coconuts trees covered most of the periphery.

After initial amusement and a quick exploration of the island, everyone decided to take a swim. I was not carrying my snorkelling gear so I took a power nap. When I woke up, I was all fresh and geared-up to enter the water. The blazing sun and the unbearable heat made the water all the more alluring for a swim. I borrowed snorkelling gear from a friend and after spending a few minutes in the water, it struck me that I could swim the channel between Tinnakara to Bangaram island. We were asked to reach Bangaram by lunchtime and there was enough time considering it would take 2 hours to swim 3-4 kilometres in the sea. With childlike enthusiasm, I came up to the shore and declared my plan. I tried convincing fellow colleagues and friends to join me. I told them “imagine a kind of story you would have to tell to your grandchildren”, many got excited, but to my dismay, no one was ready to join. After a few unsuccessful attempts of convincing fellow colleagues, I took a plunge with mask, snorkel, fins and camera and started swimming in the direction of Bangaram. This decision was a bit rash on my part, considering that there could be a strong current in the channel, but the sea was exceptionally calm, the tide was rising and since I have considerable experience in swimming in the open ocean, I decided to take a chance.

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Tall branches of Acropora coral

For the first 30 minutes, I swam non-stop. I crossed countless sand patches where corals were growing intermittently. Variety of beautiful fish mostly surgeonfish, parrotfish swam by like commuters passing on busy streets of metro cities. After a while I came upon a or up close with a big patch of massive boulder coral that was as big as a truck and surrounding the mammoth structure, there were branching corals of all sizes and shape. Their intertwined branches were spread nicely across shallows and tiny fish of different variety swam in and out of coral crevices. At one point an immense jobfish curiously checked me out, returning, again and again, to stare at me as if to state proprietarily, “Hey! This is my patch!”

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A group butterflyfish nibbling on coral polyps

Frequently the groupers hung around as I was gliding over, but not for long as these shy fish are skittish so off they hid! After an hour or so I spotted shoals of fusilier fish cruise by, and after some time I was preoccupied with sea fans galore! They were red and rainbow coloured and in a range of sizes. Red whip corals rose up like lilies beneath the fans and a host of small anthia fish went about their business in between. At one point, I saw six pipe fish sitting on the reef in a circle as if they were in the middle of an important conversation. At other instance, I saw a pair of butterflyfish nibbling on coral polyps. I thought to myself, if I could, even I would love to be nibbling on coral reefs.

By now my energy levels had gone down. I was swimming for more than an hour. It looked like I was half-way with little distance to cover. I kept swimming, duck diving and exploring lagoons that were beaming with life. After almost 90 minutes my friends came to me on the boat to check on me. They requested me to get on the boat, but I refused as little distance was left before I could make it to the island. I offered my sincere thanks for allowing me to continue, and after gulping a few sips of water I continued swimming. When I was just about to reach the island, a safety boat came from somewhere and I was dragged on the boat despite endless requests to allow me to continue. My dream of crossing the island ended abruptly, but enthusiasm stayed.

Once on Bangaram, I had a quick shower and ate lunch with brimful of rice on my plate. Over lunch, I met interesting people and had endless interesting conversations. With few known and unknown faces, I explored the island and visited a freshwater lake on the island. In the evening we witnessed the sun kissing the sea kind of sunset. Delightful shades of blue and turquoise were everywhere. Once it was dark, we walked across the island in a small enthusiastic group, with fellow researchers and local residents and we feasted on the incredibly diverse and wholesome buffet. As we dined inches from the sea, we chatted on a range of topics pertaining to marine life and conservation of biodiversity. Our conversation ranged from fish to football, from planktons to whales, from gurus to new gadgets, from tuna pickle to tuna movement, from coconuts falling on people’s head to the usefulness of coconut in preserving coastal erosion.

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Bangaram Island– the venue of the conference

From the second day onwards, the official conference started and for the next three days, the days fell into a blissful routine. Every morning, we were picked literally from our doorstep into a traditional boat called ‘Kundalum’ boat and once we were off to Bangaram, a breakfast of eggs, any style you like, and tropical fruits of variety followed.

The conference venue was right on the beach. A huge hall, resembling a wedding hall was set on the white sand of Bangaram island. The red-lettered “Reef for Life” banner was decorated with BJP logo and had beaming faces of Hon. Prime Minister, Mr Modi, the Environment Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan and the administrator of the union territory of Lakshadweep, Mr Faruk.

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The Environment Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan and the administrator of the union territory of Lakshadweep, Mr Faruk along with other

As per the schedule, the conference talks were supposed to start at 10 in the morning, however, the honourable cabinet minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan and his gang got delayed by nearly two hours. This allowed us an ample amount of time to catch up with friends. I was sitting next to Dr Deepak Apte, the director of Bombay Natural History Society and his student Dr Sumantha Narayana and learning the tricks and trades of dealing with bureaucracy. After the minister arrived the session started with the introduction of seven dignitaries who were on stage and each gave a 5-10-minute speech. For me, it was the most entertaining session. All the people who were with the minister were as successful in hiding their intentions as filmmakers are in hiding Akshay Khanna’s receding hairline. The conference organisers presented the work they were conducting in different parts of India and set the stage for the conference.

Post lunch was the first session of the conference—the status of coral reefs. We were listening to talks and attending a panel discussion that ranged in different topics—from biodiversity loss in coral reefs to impacts of climate change. Talk by Dr Ravichandran, the Chief Wildlife Warden and Dr Rajkumar of Zoological Survey of India were noteworthy. Dr Ravichandran spoke about his experience of working in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and how he bridged the gap between researchers and the Forest Department. While Dr Rajkumar was very brief in his ways and told a powerful story of a young boy and his dream and then connected to the islands and conservation. Talks delivered by both received a loud round of applause as they spoke of the broader issue of conservation of coral reefs.

After attending different talks, by evening we were in the water snorkelling inside the lagoons and chilling in the water like water buffaloes. A cultural event where the island kids were dancing to Malayalam songs was a treat to watch in the beginning, but all of a sudden, the volume got so loud that I had to walk out to a quieter place. For dinner, there was coconut rice and tasty tuna that was cooked in island style coconut gravy. Post dinner we returned to our comfortable abode in Tinnakara island. Once on Tinnakara, we walked all along the island beach for turtle sighting. Though we did not see any turtles, we did come across a few fresh tracks of nesting turtles. It was low tide and the ghost crabs were on the beach, running from one end to another like professional soccer players. Their density was exceptionally high. I estimated almost 20 to 30 individuals per meter. If I’d had time, I would have loved to estimate their numbers. Arun Rathish, Prakash, Tanmay, Ranith and Amith were my fellow companions, and at a student level, we spoke a lot on diverse topics including institutional politics that is damning research in India.

On the second day of the conference, the session started with Dr David Johnson giving a presentation about value addition in coral reef research. The interesting aspect was that he remembered about my poster and he mentioned my work in his talk. The second talk was about value addition through people participation by Dr Sergio Chiradanii. He gave interesting examples of successful sustainable tourism models including of Chumbe Island Marine Protected Area, which I visited a few years ago. Post lunch was the panel discussion session for which I was on the stage. We spoke a bit about what we think about coral reef conservation issues in India. Once again snorkelling ritual followed, which was followed by a session of poster presentations, quick dinner and lovely time in Tinnakara island with friends.

On the third and last day of the conference, the session started with a panel discussion where Dr Idress Babu raised some important issues regarding the capacity building of locals for the conservation of coral reefs. In the afternoon Dr Deepak Apte gave a very interesting talk where he ended his talk with saying, that “its time to act, and if not now, then when?” This talk was followed by Dr Andandi’s talk, a behaviour economist who works with the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. She spoke about the ‘Green skill Development Programme’. Mr Damodhar, Dr Ravichandran, Mr Yuvraj Singh Yadava, PP Hamid Abdulla, Dr Chandra spoke about a few important issues and what challenges exists and how to overcome issues and threats to coral reefs. The last session was by Dr Chandra who gave a vote of thanks and glorified the work carried out by the ZSI. The last session was once again by Mr Abdu Koya who gave an emotional speech; where he thanked every individual (including jackfruit trees!) who were remotely involved in making the conference successful. The conference ended with participants taking the pledge for call of action for the conservation of coral reefs and a group photo.

For me, the best part about the conference was that I got to meet amazing people and researcher who are working hard in different corners of India for protecting coral reefs. By far the most enjoyable activity was sitting on the beach or chilling in shallow water as the sun began to set or watching the people turn to sunset silhouettes.

Evenings were spent checking fish ID’s and over suppers, the fantastic, fun and helpful participants joined us and shared their extensive knowledge of their research and dives and many a funny tale of their adventures!  Conference manager Abdu Koya did an amazing job in catering requests of all including environment minister request of Dr Harsh Vardhan who tried SCUBA– what a place to take the first plunge! Thirty-degree water and great visibility was the norm and underwater life we saw was literally breathtaking. Besides I got to meet local heroes such as Idrees Babu, Hanifa Koya and local organizations who were coming forward to find new ways to engage the public and conserve reefs.

Overall, it was motivating to meet people from different backgrounds working together for the same cause. Even though I have attended many conferences, STAPCOR was different in the sense that it was held in the islands which are most spectacular and at the same time most vulnerable due to impacts of climate change.  It provided an excellent opportunity and platform for the member countries to interact and share their scientific knowledge for the conservation of coral reefs, as best described in its theme: ‘Identify and Implement Effective Management Strategies for Conservation, Increased Resiliency and Sustainable Use of Coral Reefs’.

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A group picture of STAPCOR, 2018

While the “Reef for life” motto is very obvious, holding an international event has definitely stirred marine conservation in a new and unexpected direction. After all, there is a lot in common between Lakshadweep islands and dreams. They both can disappear before you try to remember them!


International Conference on Status and Protection of Coral Reefs (STAPCOR – 2018) was held at Bangaram Island, Union Territory of Lakshadweep from 21st to 24th October 2018. This conference was part of International Year of the Reef, 2018 which is designed to raise awareness about the threats to coral reefs and the associated ecosystems. The theme of the conference was “Reef for Life”. It was inaugurated by Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Dr Harsh Vardhan. It further draws plans to promote partnerships between governments, the private sector, academia and civil society, and share information on best practices for sustainable coral reef management.

It was jointly organized by Department of Environment and Forest, Union Territory of Lakshadweep Administration with the technical support of Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) and in association with Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Environmental Information System (ENVIS) in consonance with declaration of year 2018 as 3rd decadal International year of Reefs. About 150 delegates both international and national had participated in this mega event. The delegates and keynote speakers for technical deliberations were from United State of America (USA), United Kingdom (UK), Kuwait, Italy, France, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

*The views and opinions presented here are mine and do not reflect the opinions of funding/research or any affiliated institutions.

Tracking the trajectory of coral reefs in the Andaman Islands

An edited version of this article was first published in the Hornbill, Bombay Natural History Society Magazine, April-June, 42-45.


An example of a resilient reef with high coral cover, dominated by species likely resistant to coral bleaching_Vardhan Patankar
An example of a resilient reef with high coral cover, dominated by species likely resistant to coral bleaching

Corals are some of the simplest, yet most complex organisms on the planet. Primitive, yet amazingly modern. Smaller than a size of your nail or bigger than your car. Unbelievably resilient, yet dramatically vulnerable.

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I fell in love with the reef ecosystem when I observed colourful and vibrant reefs in the Andaman Islands fifteen years ago and they have been my driving force ever since. Although I was involved in documenting the post-tsunami damage to the reefs and their subsequent recovery during my initial years of research, the real quest to study the reef ecosystem started eight years ago, in the summer of 2010 to be precise, when I had the first inkling to the mass coral bleaching phenomenon. Until then I had only heard of coral bleaching, which occurs when the symbiotic dinoflagellates called as zooxanthellae (a type of microalgae)  are lost from reef-building invertebrates; without the algae, corals lose their colour and a source of energy and die or turn bleached (white). But what my colleagues and I observed was far worse than our imagination. We spent the next year documenting the impacts of the bleaching phenomena. Altogether, we surveyed seventy-five sites along fifty-one islands across the length and breadth of the islands. Every site was different in terms of its location, percent of live coral cover, and overall fish species composition, yet they all had a few usual suspects of corals and fish. Surveying reefs of north Andaman felt like as if we were swimming over cemetery of corals. Whereas in South Andaman and Nicobar archipelago only a few corals had bleached. Why certain reefs didn’t get bleached whereas other bleached kept us baffled.

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A bleached colony of Acropora sp

In subsequent years, we continued monitoring these sites and what we observed took us by surprise. Many sites had succumbed to rubble and did not recover, whereas others hardly bleached and recovered fully. There appeared to be a lot of variation on how much coral cover is affected by physical and biological disturbances and the real-time question that emerged was how quickly coral communities can recover after disturbance. This is an age-old question, that has intrigued many including me, and thus, I have been assessing reefs of the Andaman Islands with the aim of understanding what makes certain reef resilient, others resistant whereas a few susceptible in the face of repeated disturbances. A resilient reef is better able to recover from stress events like bleaching and storms. They are like our immune system. A person with better immunity can recover quickly from illness and viral infections such as cold, whereas a person with low immunity can take a long time to recover.

After reviewing and collating past information, it was clear that the Andaman and Nicobar reefs have been grappling with massive coral mortality since time immemorial. As per the documented records, the Andaman Islands were hit by three tsunamis, the most recent and dramatic being the tsunami of 2004, and repeated coral bleaching has affected the island reefs. Just when reefs were beginning to recover, another natural catastrophe, the El Niño that warms the water in the equatorial Pacific and affects global weather impacted corals of the world, including those located in the Andaman Islands.  However, we are not the only ones going through the crisis – reefs of several countries have been affected by the 2016 bleaching event, which is also believed to be the longest and most intense bleaching event in history.  A recent study predicted the local extinction of many reefs in the next 50 years. Other than natural catastrophes, many other types of disturbances or stresses can kill corals including cyclones, disease, pollution, overfeeding of coral by crown-of-thorn sea star, many of which are human induced.

All host anemones are susceptible to bleaching, and during the peak of heat year there could be reductions in the abundance of both the anemones and their resident clown fish
All host anemones are susceptible to bleaching, and during the peak of heat year there could be reductions in the abundance of both the anemones and their resident clown fish

People often ask that if disturbance and recovery of corals are part of the natural coral reef ecosystem, then why bother studying reef resilience? My answer is that the frequency of disturbances is exponentially higher than previously known, and monitoring coupled with active management is the only hope to save them. After major natural catastrophes, there are some corals that survive the heat stress, recover quickly, and recolonize the dead reefs. Imagine if we have basic ecological data collected as part of long-term monitoring programs to better predict which reefs might bleach, which ones will survive, and which ones will bounce back and recover quickly. If we had this information, wouldn’t we make sure that these reefs were adequately protected? And wouldn’t that enable the custodians of marine protected areas to make better decisions to reduce as much “man-made” stress as possible in order to give these more resilient reefs a stronger chance of survival? This is why understanding reef resilience is important.

In order to do this, we have selected 10 sites and at each site, we collect data on a range of variables that are known to confer resilience of the reefs. My colleagues, Zoya Tyabji and Nairika Barucha collect data on invertebrates and coral genera found on different reefs and their relative abundances, whereas Tanmay Wagh and I collect data on reef fish and benthic categories. In addition, in order to understand how herbivore fish aid in the post-disturbance recovery of corals, Tanmay has set-up experiments to understand how herbivore fish maintain the coral-algal balance on reefs.

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Our sampling team

The information we are collecting is consistent with monitoring data collected by different organisations across the world such that our data contribute to the global effort on understanding reef resilience. As the ocean temperatures keep rising, we know that it is not only the corals that suffer from rising ocean temperature. Bleaching diminishes the reef in ways that we are just beginning to understand reducing the overall health and stability of the entire ecosystem.

IMG_20180202_123006.jpgFor the majority of reefs in the Andaman Islands, there is limited information on the condition and health of the reefs. A few recent studies suggest that understanding and managing local processes e.g., local hydrodynamics, ecological and physical factors, fishing pressure, could play an important role in the recovery of coral reefs. We are now analysing a massive dataset and trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle through the lens of reef resilience and creating some sort of roadmap for how these reefs will respond in the face of repeated disturbances. The hope is that the data we are collecting can be used by the Andaman authorities to help make decisions about where to concentrate their resources to maximize the efficiency of protecting the reefs.

Though doom and gloom of tsunami and bleaching is a reality, there is a reason to be optimistic about the reefs. Rather than writing refined obituaries of coral reef degradation, it is also important to highlight success stories of reef resilience. Our preliminary findings indicate that at many reef sites reefs are remarkably resilient. These areas should get all attention from reef managers. A good start is to strengthen existing protected areas and to realise that the people’s livelihoods in the Andaman Islands are directly or indirectly linked to the reefs’ resilience. Managing coral reefs is complex—it’s unsteady balance of ecosystem, science, politics, and economics. The current situation demands complicated solutions, especially since it involves dealing with global climate change, reducing our carbon footprints and the lives of thousands who are dependent on reefs. A thorough understanding of different factors that are important for coral reefs can give us a way beyond the easy hand-washing, nothing-can-be-done, attitude. By recognizing that coral reefs and our societies are inherently coupled, we can evolve better strategies to manage them that are ecologically sound, as well as socio-economically equitable.

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What makes a conference right: my views after attending IMCC 2018

I used to dislike large conservation conferences– the amount of plastic use, wastage of food and resources, carbon footprints of delegates who fly from different parts of the world in the name of conservation – all of it!

In fact, a couple of years back, I decided I will not attend any conference, whether it is national or international. But somehow I got roped into attending the Society for Conservation Biology’s International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) in Sarawak, Malaysia.

Now I think otherwise, perhaps because this has been one of the best or meaningful conferences I have attended. My broad opinion that attending a conference is useless or a waste of time has changed. So, I thought I’d offer a list of what makes a conference meaningful, and hope it has some value for others.

A conference should openly address, embrace and celebrate nature and wildlife, and in particular, have a lot to offer for one’s area of specialisation. Although the theme of this year’s IMCC was “Make Marine Science Matter”, the conference had several sub-sections in the form of a workshop, symposium, talks, poster session, etc., for everyone interested in the field of marine conservation. All the activities, including plenary talks, session talks, break-out sessions, panel discussions and casual chats over coffee and beer was with people who were doing what I do, and who shared with me what I love doing the most. This elated feeling of exchanging ideas and thoughts was a lot of fun!

The conference encourages and facilitates continued learning beyond the time limit of each session. Many times I’ve attended sessions and workshops where you get a false sense of achievement, but after the conference is over, everything you have learned evaporates into thin air. I like conferences where I have something to refer to (besides my own notes). For example, handouts, summary email from the session organisers, some goodies, recommended links and most importantly, great ideas!. After attending every session at IMCC, I got enough time to ponder and received material that I can refer to later in time.

Quality of talks should be interesting, and if nothing new, they should at least provide perspective. I don’t mind spending my time, but I hate wasting my time. At a few conferences, I felt that I am wasting my time sitting through mostly boring with very few interesting talks. Whereas at IMCC 2018, most talks (or at least what I attended) including session talks were outstanding in terms of science and clarity of the talk.

An effective timeline, clear directions and the duration of the conference matters. In the past, I have attended conferences where I was perpetually lost. Most of my time was spent finding the session halls and meeting points. And when I finally managed to locate the venue or conference hall, I was either late for the session or the session was full. I have also attended conferences which are spanned over two days and are packed with activities. In such action-packed conferences, by the time I started getting a grasp of planned activities, the conference was over.  On the contrary, IMCC was spanned for the right amount of time (4 days) and the timeline was not hectic and it was not difficult to find the venue and session halls. This gave me ample time to make personal connections with friends and colleagues who belong to my tribe.

The venue should be exciting and give you a nice break from your usual routine. The location or the venue plays a big role in how you perceive your experience at the conference. This year’s IMCC was held at the Waterfront hotel in the spectacular city of Sarawak in Borneo. Everything was just right. The venue hall was big enough for people to break into smaller groups. The venue was situated at a convenient location where it was easy to get cheap accommodation close by or even walking distance from the venue. The stay was not heavy for my pockets. The food and beer were reasonably priced for people from developing countries, and the best part was that there was enough to see and experience while wandering in-and-around the city. Besides attending the conferences, during my 10 days stay, I managed to see Orangutans, Irrawaddy dolphins, many endemic birds, mangroves, a few historical museums and the blooming of the world’s largest flower- Rafflesia.

Accessibility, visa procedures, logistics should not be a herculean task. In most countries,  acquiring a visa is tedious and time-consuming. One has to show tickets, invitation letters, return tickets and enough bank balance. And even then, the chance of you not getting a visa always lingers over your mind. For attending the IMCC conference, I applied13 days in advance for a visa, and within 4 days, I got my eVisa without running around the consulate office.

Representation from all ages, gender and ethnicity is guaranteed. With over 2000 marine conservation professionals and students in attendance, IMCC was one of the most important international events for anyone working in the field of marine conservation science. Though the majority of people were white, which could be because this was the Society of Conservation Biology meeting which is based in the USA, there was a representation of brown & black people. Also, another striking observation was that there was equal representation of women and the gender ratio was not strikingly disproportionate.

The fees should not make a hole in your pocket. The reason most of us attend a conference is because of networking, sharing ideas and other clichés. However, sometimes the attendance of a conference is dictated by the confluence of the budget. I agree that good things cost money, but at times I get the feeling that attending a conference was a solid rip off. IMCC fees made sense, visa fees were not exorbitant, food was cheap, and there were lots of field trips which were reasonably priced and considering the overall quality of the conference, I think, the conference was value for money.  In addition, I had chosen an option of volunteering, as a result, I got to attend the Irrawaddy and Mangrove trip and that too for free. When you get such add-ons when you are least expecting it, it’s always a boon.

A presence of a balance between the number of resources and what is really required at the conference. At a few conferences, I have been flabbergasted by the amount of plastic use and wastage of resources – every item was wrapped in a double or triple layer of plastic. I agree that some amount of waste is inevitable, but I hate it when options for refilling water bottles are absent at the conference venue. IMCC organisation team took an extra effort to reduce waste of resources; there was an option of filling-up your water bottles, conference tag was not wrapped in plastic and simple recyclable cloth bag was take away goodie that was given to all delegates. Overall I did not get the feeling that people are using more than what they need.

The organizers are professional and they value yours as well as others timings. Whether it’s a matter of taking feedback or complaints or giving clear directions, I like conferences where organisers modus operandi is punctilious, speakers follow the allotted timings and organisers want feedback at the end of the conference. It feels good to think about what was nice, what didn’t go right, and what might be a good future addition or direction for future events and so on.

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IMCC5 Emoji Working Group meeting
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Dr. Joshua Cinner giving a plenary talk on people and reefs
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South Asia working group collaboration meet

These were few points which made my experience of attending IMCC meaningful. I would love to hear what you love, and how you evaluate your experience of attending a conference.


 

Stop the illegal sale of coral products

When corals are threatened all over the world and are dying at an alarming rate, The Times of India is advertising calcium supplement called CORCAL, which is made from 100 % natural coral grains. A tagline of the product reads,  go ahead take control, its time you live healthy inside and stay beautiful outside.

Well! this is exactly this corporate LupinLife, Corcal and many other products that are sold on Amazon.in is doing– taking control.

Corals are protected under the schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The trade of this species in any form, in any part of India, is strictly prohibited under Sec. 49 (B) of the act. It is illegal to collect (dead or alive), keep, kill, transport, sell or advertise coral and their products in India. In other words, selling this product is equivalent to selling a product of a tiger skin. The company claims that the coral grains are from Okinawa, Japan, without realising that corals are listed in the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), Appendix I and IIand Japan and 140 other countries including India are signatories to it. It means that their international trade has to be closely controlled to avoid over-exploitation and to guarantee that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.

There are no doubts that due to commercial exploitation and unsustainable use of marine resources several species are gone extinct from the wild. A recent report estimated that 75 percent of remaining coral reefs are currently threatened, and many have already been lost. Even some of the most remote and pristine reefs are losing species. To protect the corals, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ), the International Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the World Customs Organization (WCO), the Economic and Social Council, the Security Council and the General Assembly of the UN, have set strict protocol to ban the trade of wildlife and related products.

Yet, LupinLife, Corcal has an Indian website and they are promoting their product in India using mainstream print media as their main channel of advertisement. In addition, there are at least 30 products that are selling coral calcium under different names.  It’s astounding and alarming how openly Corporates sidetrack the Law that is meant to protect corals. #Sanctuary Asia #Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, Government of India #TRAFFIC, India Office #WWF_India #Wild-life crime control Bureau #NationalBiodiversityAct please notice and take appropriate action.

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Advertisement of CORCAL, published on 11th June in the Times of India

Hopefully,  the tide of unrelenting trade in corals will turn and LupinLife, Corcal and similar Corporates stop selling products derived from corals or any wildlife.


 

The hook-line-and-sinker of Andaman fisheries

 “Let your hook always be cast. Some fish will eat the bait and the free food will come your way”.

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This was a popular belief in the Andaman Islands until recently. However, these days, alas, one can’t be so sure of a nibble. Casual chats with senior fishermen are dotted with stories of dwindling fish numbers and how these folk are struggling to make ends meet. The pattern common in much of tropics. Once abundant fish are rare and those in demand are getting exploited at an alarming rate.

So why then are the fishermen still spending time, money and energy in catching fish?

The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple version: the fishermen are hopeful and are adapting to economic impulses of the market. They are responding to changes in supply and demand, seeking new markets, exploring new fishing grounds and deeper areas to keep themselves afloat. The complicated answer, however, is wrapped up in the global economics of seafood, a research area that, while still in its infancy, is important to understand for the sake of saving the remaining fish stocks of the islands.

In the early history of commercial fisheries involved a focus on Trochus and Sea Cucumbers, which then shifted to sharks, crabs and pelagic species. However, in the past ten years, there has been a transformation of fisheries from subsistence fisheries to the fisheries that woo to the demands of new markets. One particular species of grouper (Plectropomus leopardus), commonly called as ‘dollar macchi’ or CT (coral trout) is the main driver of this transformation. The demand for this fish started in early 2000. Once considered as a trash fish, they suddenly started selling for the higher price as eating a red coloured fish is considered a sign of prosperity in China, where nearly all of these fish are headed. Today a significant proportion of the landed fish stocks are exported to Southeast Asia. In addition, there is no effective monitoring of resource extraction trends and poor, often outdated and non-contextual management regulations.

The most commonly used gear for catching the dollar fish is a hook-and-line, where the hook is set to cast, the fish nibbles and gets caught in the process. Along with groupers, many other fish get caught who nibble the bait ranging from snappers, barracudas, jacks to sharks. Most of these fish groups are top predators of the sea. They feed on smaller fish and invertebrates such as crabs, shrimps and lobster and thus playing an important role in maintaining the health of coral reef ecosystem. Depletion of their stock has bitter consequences for the island marine ecosystem.

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Multiple species of groupers including highly valued Plectropomus sp.

These islands were hit by the tsunami in 2004. Memory of local people divides the Islands into before and after the tsunami. Immediately after the tsunami, the fisheries took a toll as many small-scale fishermen lost their boats and nets to the vicious waves of the tsunami. The island administration promoted this archipelago for tourism, whereas the fisheries department worked towards rejuvenating the island’s fisheries. Resorts and restaurants mushroomed to cater to the influx of tourists. Most tourists preferred eating fish that has tender meat, and thus the demand for prawns, crabs and travellys, barracudas, snapper fish increased. These new demands put additional pressure on the Island’s fish stocks. To top this, global warming and changing climate pose further problems to the Island fisheries. As carbon dioxide levels rise, the oceans become more acidic, rendering the water inhospitable to marine species. The rising water temperatures affect reproduction and survival. They also increase overall nutrient load in the water column by fostering harmful algal blooms and impacts fisheries. In addition to the 2004 tsunami, disturbances in the recent past, which include three major coral bleaching events have impacted the reef ecosystems, resulting in habitat loss for reef fish.

Some suggest fish farming as a solution to meet growing demand for seafood–a blue revolution in this century to mirror match MS Swaminathan’s green revolution of the past. In the Andaman Islands, the rearing of commercially important species such as grouper fish has been tested in cages in Chidiyatapu region in south Andaman. The idea is that young ones of fish are reared in aquariums and later allowed to grow in sea water inside the cages. Once they reach a certain size they are harvested as fish stocks. However, various studies have shown that cage culture is easier said than done; it requires a lot of maintenance and comes with its own host of ecological problems.

Should we eat certain fish species or should we be selective in our choices are real questions? It’s a fact that catching fish out of the sea has an impact on the environment. Yet wild-caught fish are free from additives, less costly in terms of carbon footprints budget than pork or beef. And, unlike some sectors of the farming and aquaculture industries, wild fishing doesn’t depend on intensive doping with antibiotics, the gross simplification of habitats or animals reared in intensive care wards.

Studies have shown that the fish, like other animals, compete and cooperate, breed and migrate and are sentient beings.  There is considerable knowledge of the management of fisheries from other parts of the world. A few initiatives tell you what fish to eat during which month. For mainland India, there is ‘Know your Fish’ and ‘InSeason Fish’ programs that encourage consumers to make informed choices when it comes to eating fish. There are other programs in the west that endorse and encourage fishermen to practice sustainable fisheries and even issue licenses based on the fishing practices they follow.

Setting-up Marine protected areas (MPA), a simple premise to set aside a part of the seascape, which is devoid of any human activity, are known to have long-lasting impacts on fisheries sector. Such MPAs can be both a safety valve and a treasure trove for marine life. They can act as insurance against natural catastrophes. Fish can prosper in the protected areas and thus spill over into the “unprotected” sea. In the Andaman Islands, we do have two prominent marine protected areas, the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park (MGMNP) in South Andaman and Rani Jhansi Marine National Park (RJMNP) in Ritchie’s archipelago. Besides, there are 105 protected Islands where fishing is prohibited. However, most of these areas function as mere paper parks. Fishers who live on the fringes of these MPAs complain that their livelihoods are being ignored and they often show lack of compliance inside the park. Except for MGMNP in other protected areas patrolling, monitoring and implementation of the law framework is weak. Besides, the issue of poaching for fish resources by foreign poachers continues.

 The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is also a marine biodiversity hotspot encompasses multiple habitat types that support a range of fisheries also are home to various indigenous communities that have relied on marine resources for subsistence purposes for centuries. People from different parts of India have settled in these islands and each community follows different practices, gears that they have learnt from the Indian mainland. Considering social-cultural and ecological setting of the island, the Andaman Islands would require different management strategies.

At present, only seven fish are protected under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Fishery monitoring agencies have been collecting coarse landing statistics of fish groups, with no separation of species or even family and huge gaps exist in our knowledge of fisheries and there is limited documentation of the status and impact that fishing practices have on marine ecosystems and fisher livelihoods. Economic analysis of fisheries would be useful to demonstrate the short and long term advantages of well-managed fisheries. The lack of reliable data and trained manpower to handle fisheries also highlights the need to improve the dissemination of information so that strategies for the management of these events can be implemented. The popular belief that the only time we are supposed to stay off seafood is during the monsoon no longer holds true.

Given the potentially negative consequences of catching one particular fish species such as grouper fish, an ecosystems-based approach to fisheries management can be a way forward, which also encompasses conservation of marine biodiversity. While a bit vague, the idea is to take into consideration habitat of fish when making management decisions. From the viewpoint of the ecosystem, it is important to know how overfishing of one species affects another species. In particular, exploring offshore resources while protecting inshore fisheries, understanding of fishing community perspective, promoting recreational fisheries, which brings better returns per fish, enforcing patrolling and dealing with all illegal fishing can go a long way in managing Island fisheries.

Conserving marine biodiversity and managing fisheries is a must, after all, it’s not about the ‘fish’, but it’s about food and job security of thousands of islanders who are dependent on the fisheries sector. It is time that we take effective steps to manage island fisheries, to insulate Andaman from global fishing pressures. If we don’t take timely actions, then the common hook-and-line fishing method can be a sinker for the Andaman island fisheries.


An edited version of this article was first published in the WIRE.

Ghosts of the sea—lost nets that kill marine life

A by-product of fishing industry– lost or abandon nets also referred to as ghost nets are as deadly as their name implies.

Drifting with highs and lows of the ocean currents, they often become tangled together with ropes, buoys and other debris to form what are known as ghost net conglomerates and they swallow or ensnare everything that comes on its way including marine turtles, dugongs, dolphins and whales.

Amongst marine life, the most affected species is Olive Ridley turtle. They are ocean-dwelling, meaning they spend a considerable amount of time in open water, swimming in search of food, foraging in different habitats, looking for bottom-living organisms such as crabs and lobsters.

During our recent coral reef surveys in the islands, we encountered what appeared to be a discarded net floating in the water. Our first reaction was to go closer to examine the net, and when we saw the flippers of a turtle we jumped into the water to check out if the turtle was alive. The turtle was indeed alive, but struggling for life, as it was surrounded by a net and dead snapper. Schools of juvenile Golden Trevally (Gnathanodon speciosus), Scissortail Sergeant (Abudefduf sexfasciatus), Fusiliers (Caesio varilineata) and Rudderfish (Kyphosus sp.) were swimming nearby.

We cut the derelict net off from the turtle and brought the turtle on board to check for injuries. Once out of the water, it was passive but harshly gulping in air. We checked out signs of external injuries and quickly released the turtle back into the water.

The following pictures show a ghost net, turtle, dead snapper tangled into a mass that could have been wandering in the ocean for months. The detailed report can be found here.

 

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Entangled juvenile olive ridley inside the ghost net

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Ghost net conglomerates

On the way to Joy of freedom
Joy of freedom

Enbound happiness of swimming into the ocean
The happiness of swimming into the ocean

Non-profitable charity Olive Ridley Project actively fights ghost gear in the Indian Ocean; their efforts rely heavily on volunteers and every single person who collects discarded netting, removes a ghost net or disentangles an animal is helping their cause. In addition, olive ridley turtle project relies on marine biologists, fishermen sea wanderers to collect data on ghost nets and sea turtle entanglements.

As per their website, they have recovered 600 net conglomerates since 2014 and rescued 80 sea turtles! While you are on a dive trip or travelling between the islands, and if you spot a ghost net, please report it or, if safe to do so, remove it – you will contribute to efforts of olive ridley project and save the life of a magnificent ocean dwelling turtle.


A detailed article was first published in  Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter, 1 (26), 5-7. 

 

 

ISLAND ADVENTURES

Tanvi Vaidyanathan is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, UBC. Her PhD is on the conservation of incidentally caught marine organisms, using the case study of seahorses in India. When not in front of a computer, she can be found on the nearest beach, camera in hand. She posts on Instagram as @ostentatiousoxymoron

Guest post by Tanvi Vaidyanathan


Working primarily on marine policy, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer, on field, with Vardhan and Elrika over the summer of 2012. Any illusions of an easy summer were shattered when within hours of landing at the base I embarked on data entry involving the Abudefdufs’, Epinephalus’, Chaetodons’, Cephalopholis’, and Zebrasomas’, to name a few, thrown at me! I quickly settled into the routine of data entry with Elrika. While over time I became familiar with the scientific names, the common names continue to elude me!

Spending a summer at the ANET base was quite a challenge, as it possessed everything I was terrified off, crabs, snakes and lizards the foremost amongst them.  While Vardhan and Elrika were out sampling the region in and around the Wandoor Marine National Park, I spent the first few days brushing up on my SCUBA skills and embarking on what would result in a marathon Advanced SCUBA!

Andaman Islands_ picture Tanvi Vaidyanathan

My first trip with them was out towards Duncan Passage. While the guys did a minimum of around 2 dives a day, I got to snorkel for one and dive during the other. Responsibilities included marking the GPS locations and kitting up. Originally it also involved the monitoring of filling the tanks and that was exciting to be a part of the process from the filling to the de-kitting. Days on the dunghi with Uncle Bernie, Agu and Saw da were always action-packed. Days traditionally started at 5 am, with a quick run to the islands for an early morning stomach cleansing (with the added joy of beware of crocodiles signs to read while at it!), followed by tea and rusks and the first dive of the morning. Lunch was all but done by 9 am, with food comprising of any fish that Saw da could capture.

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Island beauty, rains simply added to the charm of the place

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Home!

Rapid improvements could be observed in his spearfishing skill as the number, size and frequency of fish on the boat improved. 0ur second dive by 1 pm latest and the remainder of the evening was spent in locating a suitable fresh water source so that we could freshen up and sit with the data before sunset. In the absence of a computer, data had to be entered by hand, followed by a photography session to ensure that even if the pages got wet the data was saved! The dives at North Cinque and off the Sisters were simply breathtaking, with every kind of fish imaginable and of course scratching seeing a turtle underwater off my bucket list. Everyday additional entertainment was provided courtesy of the search for fresh water, with every bath location more exotic than the previous. While there were a couple of false alarms, the dugong eluded us, and the one-day we were actually lucky enough to see seagrass the heavens opened up, I guess it was a sign! After about 5 days of living off the Dunghi, with 6 of us strategically crammed during sleep hours, we returned to the ANET base.

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Post-sampling

It felt good to be back on land, but mighty strange. We were faced with real-world problems of power outages and water shortages and seemed more crippled dealing with it than when offshore. The week was largely spent entering the data and preparing the action plan for the remainder of the summer. It was during this time that I realized I seemed to be missing some data, which then sent me off on an obsession that would keep me occupied for most of the summer. We were getting a little too comfortable on land, and after procrastinating our second trip by a couple of days we were off again, this time it was towards the North Passage. Starting from Ross we steadily made our way northwards. I was faced with the additional challenge of the dunghi lacking a ladder on this trip. Every dive and snorkelling opportunity now got a whole more challenging and exciting as I found a different way to climb the boat at every stop. Attempts included climbing on the rudder at the back of the boat, being manually lifted out of the water, having the boat slightly tilted to one side and well finally me making it over and flopping on to the boat like a freshly caught fish. There is a good reason that my middle name should have been “Grace.” Amidst cheering, sweet-talking and finally threats of being left behind by Vardhan I managed to make it aboard.

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Enter aExpedition team: L to R: Tanvi, Elrika, Uncle Bernie, Saw Da, Saw Agu and Vardhancaption

The second trip had spots as stunning as the first. Giant puffers, barracudas and groupers, anemones, eels, sea snakes, nudibranchs and the usual suspects including the clownfish, the butterfly fish, the parrots… You name it we saw it! The diving was spectacular with a ton of smaller fish, and corals like the brain corals, stone corals and branching corals in reasonable shape and showing decent (Fine, we’ll quantify that! On a scale of 1 to 5, lets say 3!) recruitment in quite a few of the sites we dived at. On our way in search of a reef, we did manage to get very lost and, well with a degree of exaggeration nearly land up in Burma! The standard of cooking during the second trip had really improved, and as each of us got into a routine the dunghi became home! This trip, however, had the added challenge of dealing with the turning winds! 6 people under a tarpaulin during the night was not a lot of fun, and daily prior to sleeping we would come up with an emergency plan in the event of a rain, which Elrika and I would have to hastily execute in the middle of the night!

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This is how we roll in our free time!

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While the visibility of the water was progressively deteriorating, it also gave us the opportunity to observe other organisms. In our last dive at Guitar, we had a deluge of nudibranchs and a whole lot of lobsters curiously looking out. The plethora of life in the region still has me spellbound! During the course of our trip, we also learnt the value of fish in any form, as we managed to barter some dried fish ( I must have been the happiest to see it go!) for a quick recharge of Vardhan’s camera battery!. The dugong, however, continued to elude us!

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Dried fish, Our Saviour!

The summer opened my eyes to the world of possibility for work in the region and I hope to return soon. In addition to entering data on the fish species in the region, the three of us would also sit down and rate various coral parameters on a scale of 1 to 5.  The beauty of each site still stands out and it quite often blew our minds, resulting in our site names even being named “Amazing!” While people say going in with no expectations adds to the charm, going in with the expectations I did the Andamans lived up to everyone! The work being carried out by Vardhan and Elrika was every bit as exciting and innovative as I’d imagined it to be. I learnt a lot over the summer, from trip preparations, logistics, man-management and dive preparations, to the actual data collection, data entry and hopefully soon the data analysis.

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Anchors down or celebrating a successful summer?

On the personal front I had three major achievements too, I can now fold a sleeping bag (without that desperately lost, painfully helpless look which resulted in Elrika folding it for me at the end of watching me attempt for half an hour), I can mostly climb the boat without a ladder (throw in a croc and I’m pretty sure I will now do it!) and of course the fact I can kind of sort of free dive (from not breaking the water surface, 5 meters is a miracle!). It was one amazing adventure, and while the work involved everything from sharpening pencils, lifting tanks, and everything else imaginable, the summer was one great all-round learning experience that I would not trade in for anything (despite the sand fly bites that left me limping with oozing sores!)

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After surviving the snakes, the lizards, a tsunami warning, the crabs, stingrays, I finally came home limping and freezing during a 43 degree Celsius day in Chennai. My conqueror? A SET OF STAIRS!

The good news, despite being at each other’s throats for most of the summer, we all returned to the mainland intact (well mostly at least!).


Post script: I was finally certified an Advance SCUBA diver after 35 days and 3000 wisecracks from Vardhan.

 

 

Meet my new companion—Gulmohar

Gulmohar flowers announce the arrival of monsoon. Its bright red colours are
a harbinger of good times.

Triban Btwin 3
B Twin Triban 3 road bicycle

My harbinger of a good time has been my recently purchased bicycle. It is a kind of bike that is popularly known as a road bike. With a sleek and sexy body, they are the elites of the cycling world. They are the gatekeepers against which others are judged.

The bug of purchasing a real road bike came to me when a friend offered to sell his old Colnago steel frame road bicycle. The offer was made just before I was leaving for the field to the Andaman Islands and on my return, I found that the bike was no longer available. With a bit of disappointment and the feeling of failure, I started searching for road bikes that are available on the Indian market. On some occasions, I would stay awake reading reviews about different bikes, and on others, I would try bicycles at different bicycle shops.

After two months of searching, I was unable to make a decision as there were too many options available on the market, and the only one that stood out was out of my budget. I contacted some veteran cyclist Lena Robra, Shrdha Rathod and Ashok Captain and got their opinion on a few models that I had shortlisted. I test rode a variety of bikes and decided that I will go with Focus or Marin bicycle.

It was on this journey of reviewing bikes that I came across the second-hand bicycle Triban 3 by Btwin. I jumped at the opportunity and contacted the owner, Akarsh Agrawal. We decided the place and time where we would meet. The test ride was not as smooth as I had expected, but what I saw was fairly close to what I was expecting– an alloy body, carbon forks, Shimano Sora shifters, an aggressive road bike position and a sturdy body. Without wasting any time, I sealed the deal with Akarsh who was generous and gave me a lot of other essentials that go with the cycle including a torch, tube, saddle bag, pump, puncture kit and so on.

On my return, I took it to the nearest service centre, and since then I have been riding the bike with the confidence of the Winner of the Tour de France. When the bike was new, I didn’t want to name it, but as I got comfortable, I thought the name is must. After all, a name means nothing, and a name means everything. To name a thing is to invite it to enmesh itself in your mind; to compress the essence of a gestalt into a single suggestive motif, from which it can be revived at will.

After much contemplation, I called my bicycle ‘Gulmohar’ after one of the most common flowering trees in Bangalore. In addition, the area where I cycle—Sahakar Nagar, Yellahanka, GKVK campus, has lots of Gulmohar trees. With flat roads and relatively less traffic, the cycling is a fun-filled activity.

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To me, Gulmohar is a dream that floats around the fringes of my imagination, a eulogy of the efficiency, technological triumph, and sheer beauty draped in bridal red. Riding Gulmohar brings me to the same feeling of elation that comes with gliding over colourful reefs. Gulmohar reminds me of re-committing myself towards a fitter life, and thus a beginning for new things to come.

I am sure I am not the only one with “Gulmohar” out there, but every bicycle lover probably feels the same way about the bicycle they own.