Indian ocean marine life less hurt by tsunami than was feared

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2005:

COLUMBO, CHENNAI, PHUKET–Concern for marine life after the
Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 centered on sea turtles
and coral reefs.
Sea turtles, just beginning their nesting season, and usually
drowned by the thousands in trawler nets, appeared to be among the
few beneficiaries–other than fish–of the destruction of fishing
fleets and beachfront development.
Thirty olive ridley sea turtles hatched on February 16 at
Tanjung Beach on Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for example, a
tsunami-struck resort area where sea turtles had not nested
successfully in more than a decade.
But U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service coral reef expert
Tom Hourigan told Paul Recer of Associated Press that reefs badly
damaged by the regional El Nino effect of 1997-1998 were likely to
have taken a further pounding.
“It is very likely that the tsunami would damage the coral
and some of the worst damage would come from debris thrown up against
the reefs,” Hourigan told Recer.
“Some entire reef ecosystems could have been buried by
sediments flushed into shallow environments,” added coral reef
division chief Russel E. Brainard of the National Oceanographic and
Atmospheric Administration.

Environmental science associate professor Somchai Sakul-thap
of Phuket Rajabhat University told Punnee Amornviputpanich of The
Nation that he found piles of broken staghorn coral along the beach
after the tsunami, plus sea cucumbers, gulper eels, and many other
species not usually washed up from the coastal shelf. He predicted
that the reefs off Phuket might take 20 years to recover.
The first post-tsunami coral reef damage assessments,
however, found that the damage was less than feared, and could be
minimized by prompt removal of objects which might batter portions of
reef apart, moving with tidal action, before they could become
anchored by new coral growth.
“We carried out four different surveys of the marine
environment [around Sri Lanka] and found low to minimum damage to
the coral reef, although the water is still very murky,” Nature
Conservancy scientist Sanjayan Muttulingam told Steve Connor,
science editor of the London Independent.
“The conditions were rough and there were items strewn over
the reef, including pipes, blocks of cement, and boat fragments,”
Muttulingam continued.
“The coral showed only minimal signs of recent breakage,
most notably at the Hikkaduwa Marine Sanctuary. In all, the live
coral seemed to have fared well–but unless we clean up the debris
left behind, there will be further damage,” Muttulingam said.
Muttulingam worked with Ravi Corea of the Sri Lanka Wildlife
Conservation Society.
“At the request of the Department of Wildlife Conserv-ation
of Sri Lanka,” e-mailed Corea, “we conducted underwater surveys of
the coral reefs of Hikkaduwa and the Unawatuna, Mirissa, and Polhena
beaches. We also assessed the impact on terrestrial habitats in the
Bundala and Yala National Parks and in the Kumana Bird Sanctuary.
This effort was totally supported by The Nature Conservancy and by
the National Geographic Society.”
“We have raised funds to provide new homes to the Department
of Wildlife Conservation staff whose homes were destroyed,” Corea
added, then described an ecological conflict of interest:
“We are providing new boats, engines and fishing gear to a
small fishing community in the village of Kariggiwela in the South
Province. Major funding for this project is provided by the
Aber-crombie & Kent Global Foundation. As part of this effort we are
also providing funds to a young widow with two children who lost her
fisherman husband to start a small business selling devotional items
at the Tissamaharama Temple.”
Apart from the need to relieve human suffering, the argument
for conservationists helping fishers is that fishing will go on
anyway, and helping the fishers gives the conservationists a chance
to promote less destructive methods than might otherwise be practiced.


Reports from India meanwhile confirmed that the tsunami has
helped sea turtles, at least until the fishing fleet recovers and
beachfront touristic infrastructure is rebuilt.
Madras Crocodile Bank Trust volunteer J. Subramanean told The
Hindu in early February that olive ridley sea turtle nestings along
the beach he patrols between Besant Nagar and Neelangarai rose from
17 in 2004 to 41 this year.
“In the post-tsunami period, the number of dead turtles
reported is less compared to last year,” Crocodile Bank Trust
education officer Kundhavi Devi added.
Farther north, where the tsunami impact was lighter, and
far more sea turtles have come ashore in recent decades, “Fishing
trawlers continue to be the biggest culprits in making the Orissa
coastline a graveyard for turtles,” the Deccan Herald reported on
February 11.
“None of the trawlers follow the government’s directive to
use turtle exclusion devices,” the Deccan Herald alleged. “The state
government has not been able to procure speedboats for patrolling
along the coast during the turtle season, though the fisheries and
forest departments were provided with funding for this five years ago.
“Moreover, despite a clear direction to post 10 armed
policemen from the Orissa State Armed Police at the three patrolling
stations at the Gahirmatha marne sanctuary and the mouths of the
rivers Devi and Rusikulya, there is no permanent police detachment.
“A fortnight back, a group of fishers kidnapped two forest
guards when they tried to seize equipment from them for illegal
trawling inside the restricted zone near the Gahirmatha marine
sanctuary. The forest guards had no police escort,” the Deccan
Herald said.
Wildlife Society of Orissa sea turtle project coordinator
Biswajit Mohanty told the Deccan Herald that volunteers had already
found 5,010 dead sea turtles this year, including 1,500 near the
Gahirmatha sanctuary.
The season toll on nesting sea turtles in recent years has
varied from 6,000 to more than 10,000.


Sea turtle nesting along Thai beaches may be incompletely
monitored this spring because of tsunami damage to the Wild Animal
Rescue Foundation of Thailand’s Wild Animal Rescue & Education Centre
at Baan Talae Nork in Ranong province. The 200 resident animals fled
to safety in the wooded portion of the site, WAR said in an
electronic newsletter, “but the center’s bungalows, kitchen, main
hall, garden, and toilet were all destroyed. Staff and volunteers
are currently camping out in the WAR office, which is seven
kilometers from the beach, and helping with relief efforts,” the
newsletter added, concluding that “With great regret, we have had
to cancel our Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Project for this

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