Skip Navigation Links
PROJECTS
West Coast Marine Conservation Project
Region: Gujarat
West Coast Marine Conservation Project in Gujarat has two components -- the Whale Shark Conservation Project and the Coral Reef Recovery Project. A joint venture of the Gujarat Forest Department, Tata Chemicals Limited and WTI, the project activities involve scientific studies of whale sharks through photo-identification, genetic analysis and satellite tagging. Moreover, the Coral Reef Recovery Project seeks to develop and implement appropriate strategies for the conservation of Mithapur reef.
The Whale Shark Conservation Project

Whale sharks were once brutally hunted across the shores of the west Indian state of Gujarat. To stop this slaughter, the species was listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 in May 2001, according it the highest level of protection in the country. It also receives international protection due to its inclusion in Appendix II of the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The widely-acclaimed Whale Shark Campaign spread awareness on the plight of the species and its protected status, in Gujarat. It helped convert the fishermen into protectors of the fish and brought about a change in the perception and attitude of local people.

Yet, very little scientific knowledge is available on whale sharks in India. Long-term conservation of the species will require generation of baseline data on its population, ecology and migration.


The world’s biggest fish 

The Whale Shark Conservation Project attempts to generate baseline data on the whale shark to aid its long-term conservation in India.

A joint venture of the Gujarat Forest Department, Tata Chemicals Limited (TCL) and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the project activities involve scientific studies of whale sharks through photo-identification, genetic analysis and satellite tagging. The project also explores establishment of whale shark tourism in India, to benefit coastal communities who play a critical role in marine wildlife conservation.

The project receives significant support from the Australia-India Council (AIC) particularly in exchange of knowledge between the two countries.

Evolving from the Whale Shark Campaign, the project was formally launched in November 2008, beginning with the formation of a Scientific Advisory Council and a Governing Council to facilitate its implementation. While the SAC includes Indian and international marine experts, the GC includes the project implementers and senior Gujarat Forest Department officials.
 
The Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) members of the Whale Shark Conservation Project in Porbandar, Gujarat

Currently being implemented by the field personnel of the Forest Department and WTI, efforts are being made to build capacity of the fishermen to facilitate their direct involvement in whale shark studies.
 
Shark rescues:
Ever since the campaign to save whale sharks was launched, Gujarati fishermen willingly began cutting their nets and releasing whale sharks that had been accidently caught. In a bid to increase the number of rescues, and ensure that the fishermen don’t have to bear the costs of their nets each time they cut them, the forest department decided to reimburse fishermen who lose their nets. Through a RAP, WTI has provided around 300 cameras to fishermen, who document the release of the large fish and get compensated by the department when they present the pictures. This has also been helping with the identification of the whale sharks.

Project lead Goutham Sambath rescuing a female whale shark in May 2013

Photo-identification
Implemented with the aim to contribute in population estimation as well as study of whale shark migration, photo-identification entails underwater photography and comparison of the photographs in a global database. The photo-identification being carried out under this project contributes whale shark photographs to the database managed by ECOCEAN. Whale sharks are identified using the pattern of spots, which are unique (equivalent to stripes in tigers) in each individual. India began contributing to global whale shark research with the initiation of photo-identification in 2010. The first individual from Indian shores was identified in April. It has been labelled as I-001 and was a new entry to ECOCEAN’s global database. So far, two individuals have been identified.

Whale shark pups:
A number of surveys carried out on Gujarat’s coast revealed that four whale shark pups had been sighted in the water, something never reported from India before. This indicated that Gujarat could be a breeding ground for whale sharks.

A video grab of a fisherman releasing a whale shark
pup accidently caught in his nets in June 2013

Genetic analysis:
Whale sharks are found in shores of India among many other countries across the world. Genetic analysis will help shed light on the genetic diversity of whale sharks as well as help establish the relationship between different populations, which can also contribute to understanding the species migration.

Satellite tagging:
One whale shark was tagged for the first time in India in 2011, a significant step in marine conservation science in India. Sea surveys have been conducted and further tagging attempts are being made to track the movement of the sharks from Gujarat’s coast and understand their migratory pattern, habitat preference, and behavioural aspects of the species.

Whale shark tourism:
Value of the whale shark in terms of revenue generated through tourism is much higher as compared to that generated by its hunt. This has been established in Australia, known to be among the countries with best whale shark tourism practices. The project is exploring the possibilities of establishing whale shark tourism in India to provide incentives to coastal communities for their contribution in conservation of marine wildlife and habitats.



The Mithapur Coral Reef Recovery Project

The Coral Reef Recovery Project is a joint venture of the Gujarat Forest Department and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) supported by the Tata Chemicals Limited (TCL) which seeks to develop and implement appropriate strategies for the conservation of Mithapur Reef, situated 12 km south of the Gulf of Kachchh in Gujarat. The project with initial support received from the World Land Trust, is also working in the recovery of coral reefs in Marine National Park.

Coral reefs, also known as the rainforests-of-the-seas, are marine ecosystems that support a rich and colourful array of aquatic flora and fauna.

Yet, not much information exists on the coral species found in India, their conservation status and threats facing them.

The Coral Reef Recovery Project is a joint venture of the Gujarat Forest Department and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) supported by the Tata Chemicals Limited (TCL) which seeks to develop and implement appropriate strategies for the conservation of Mithapur Reef, situated 12 km south of the Gulf of Kachchh in Gujarat. The project with initial support received from the World Land Trust, is also working in the recovery of coral reefs in Marine National Park.

In Mithapur, the project envisions creation of a model public-private-managed coral ecosystem of international standards using global benchmarks to restore degraded reefs through activities including coral transplantation and natural recruitment.

Corals are sedentary colonies of soft-bodied marine animals called ‘coral polyps’. The polyps range in size from a pin-head to a foot in length. The polyps harbour unicellular flagellated photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae which give the corals their colour. Their dependence on these algae for oxygen and nutrients, confine them to shallow clear waters that allow passage of light for photosynthesis.

There are two kinds of corals: hard and soft. Hard corals (Scleractinia) such as brain, star, staghorn, elkhorn and pillar corals secrete rigid calcium carbonate exoskeletons (or corallites) that protect their soft delicate bodies, while soft corals (Gorgonians) such as sea fans, sea whips, and sea rods lack an exoskeleton.

Coral reefs are extensive networks of calcium carbonate exoskeleton of massive coral colonies. The calcium carbonate exoskeleton of millions of corals fused together through adhesives secreted by the polyps result in the formation of thin plates and layers over time.

Among the richest ecosystems on earth, coral reefs are also called the ‘rainforests-of-the-seas’. They support extensive food webs, providing refuge to diverse marine wildlife.

Coral reefs are found in tropical and semi-tropical waters. In India, four major coral reef ecosystems exist in Andaman & Nicobar islands, Lakshadweep islands, Gulf of Mannar – Tamil Nadu and Gulf of Kachchh – Gujarat.

Significance of coral reef ecosystems:

Coral reefs serve as nurseries, and breeding and feeding grounds for marine wildlife.
Coral reefs protect coastlines from harsh ocean storms and floods.
Coral reefs provide livelihood opportunities through tourism and fishery for coastal communities. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), about 500 million people worldwide are dependent on coral reefs for livelihood.

Threats:
Corals are sensitive to changes in water conditions brought about by natural or man-made causes, and therefore, are good indicators of a healthy marine environment. Natural geological phenomena including cyclones, storms, hurricanes, floods and tectonic shifts, or anthropogenic activities causing pollution and global warming can have an adverse impact on corals. These cause stress to the corals leading to their bleaching and eventual death.

Bleaching is whitening of corals as a result of death or expulsion of the symbiotic algal microorganisms - zooxanthellae. This is reversible up to a certain extent, but if the corals remain without these zooxanthellae for too long, it can result in their death.

The mandates of the Coral Reef Recovery Project include:

1. Generation of baseline data on the coral diversity in Mithapur reef.
2. Generation of baseline data on the diversity of other marine life forms in Mithapur reef.
3. Facilitation of the recovery of coral reef through various kinds of interventions.
4. Reintroduction of locally-extinct species.
Baseline data on coral diversity and richness:
Till date, the project has identified at least 17 species of corals in Mithapur, including one that was declared locally-extinct. Two other species have been recorded but are yet to be identified.
As the baseline data collection process continues, more species may be found.

Baseline data on other marine life forms:
The project has additionally identified 55 species of fish, and around 150 other species includng crustaceans, shells, sea weed, six sea slugs, sea snakes, sea cucumbers, sea urchin, sea anemone and jellyfish.

Facilitation of coral reef recovery:

- Facilitating development of new colonies through strategic placement of suitable substrates.
- Preventing avoidable coral damage due to human activities through awareness generation and promoting participation of local communities.
- Preventing activities such as sand mining in the shores.
- Coral transplantation.

Coral Reintroduction:
In Mithapur reef, research has shown that two species of Acropora have become -extinct.
According to its mandate, the Mithapur Coral Reef Recovery Project is attempting an unprecedented reintroduction of Acropora species that has gone locally extinct in the Mithapur reef by transporting fragments from areas that still harbor them, and subsequent coral transplantation in Mithapur.

Agatti island in Lakshadweep was selected as a donor site on the basis of the common availability of Acropora species, as indicated by a review of available literature and subsequent ground truthing. This is the first time that live corals are being moved over a large distance for reintroduction.

Principle followed:
While local transplantation of corals have been carried out (within the same beach, without removing them from their natural surrounding), this is the first time that live corals are being transported over a large distance and transplanted for reintroduction.

With no previous records of transportation of live corals over a large distance, the project had in its face, the immediate difficulty of keeping the fragments alive outside their natural environment for a long time during the journey from Lakshadweep to Mithapur. The basic principle was to ensure emulation of natural surrounding during the entire process of extracting the fragments, stabilisation and transport of from Lakshadweep to Mithapur.

Process:
Fragments of Acropora were broken off the donor colonies and implanted on moveable substrates and stabilised.

As such a move has never been reported, protocols on live coral transport were devised and tested successfully, before the actual move. Accordingly, the stabilised coral fragments were transported, covering a distance of about 1500 kms from Lakshadweep to Mithapur.

In Mithapur the coral fragments were stabilised with Lakshadweep water, and gradually acclimatised to the local sea water. The fragments were finally immersed into the natural surrounding and transplanted.

Through the entire process, observations were carried out to ensure early identification of signs of stress, for appropriate countering by getting back to the natural conditions. Stress in corals cause whitening (bleaching) due to expulsion of the zooxanthellae.

 
RELATED PUBLICATIONS
Copyrights Reserved © 2013, Wildlife Trust of India
Privacy Policy  |  Site By  :  Web Ink