Climate Change in the Gulf of Mannar

On 20th May, the world carbon dioxide levels breached the 400 ppm mark for the first time in some 2.5 million years. About a month later, on 18th of June, 2013, a workshop was held at Chennai on Climate Change and Livelihoods in the Gulf of Mannar, Tamil Nadu. The workshop attracted a packed audience including government officials, members of the fishing community from Gulf of Mannar, scientists and academics as well as members of the civil society. The highlights were presentations on scientific data and people’s perceptions in the Gulf of Mannar about climate change based on studies carried out there. It was interesting to note that overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change were considered, in that order, as the major threats in the region.

A benchmark reached
In 1958, geochemist Charles Keeling, having developed an accurate method of measuring CO2 in the atmosphere, began recording background levels of the gas at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. On 20th May 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured CO2 levels of 400.06 ppm, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured 400.15 ppm at Mauna Loa. This breach of the 400 ppm mark is believed to be the first time in 2.5 million years. Scientists believe that sometime during the Pleistocene Epoch, CO2 levels were more than 400 ppm. (Remember, the level was about 280 parts per million at the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, when the burning of fossil fuels began to soar). Scientists also estimate that average temperatures during that time rose as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Sea levels ranged between 16-131 feet higher than current levels, according to Richard Norris, a Scripps geologist.
It is therefore not surprising that climate change is of serious concern to everyone, from corporate houses to coastal communities. But it is also most difficult for the layperson to visualise what would be the effects some fifty or hundred years hence and also difficult to accept that it is necessary to be prepared for such change, especially when there are so many other pressures. That does not mean that one relegates to the bottom the pressure of climate change. Thus, it was useful to have the workshop on Climate Change and Livelihoods in the Gulf of Mannar, Tamil Nadu, on 18th of June, 2013, at Chennai. Organized by the BoBP-IGO and supported by the Public Affairs Centre, fishMARC, ANSA South Asia Region and the Thinktank Initiative, it saw the participation of government officials, members of the fishing community from Gulf of Mannar, scientists and academics as well as members of the civil society. The attempt was to try to fuse scientific knowledge with people’s knowledge.
The Gulf of Mannar is a large shallow bay lying between the southeastern tip of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka. It falls in the Indo-Pacific region and is considered to be one of world’s richest marine biological resources. In 1986, a group of 21 islets lying off the Tamil Nadu coast between Thoothukudi and Dhanushkodi were declared the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park. The park and its 10 km buffer zone were declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1989. The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve covers an area of 10,500 km² of ocean, islands and the adjoining coastline. There are about 125 villages along the coastal part of the biosphere reserve which support about 100,000 people. This is only a small portion of the Gulf. Fishing, seaweed collection, pearl and chank collection are important activities in the region but overfishing of species in the area, pollution and habitat destruction are important issues apart from restrictions in certain places due to the declaration as protected area.
Highlights of the Workshop
The workshop included presentations from specific studies carried out in the area. Mr Jangal presented an overview of scientific data and people’s perceptions related to climate change in the GoM. The scientific data included information on the seasonal distribution of rainfall and temperature and the occurrence of floods and droughts in the region. People of the area believed that the direction of wind had changed after the tsunami in 2004. Occurrence of flash floods had become unpredictable in the last 7-8 years. An increase was observed in the surface as well as underwater temperature. In the case of palmyra trees, the increase in temperature and change in rainfall extent brought down the extent of juice secreted by the trees. He concluded that climate variability is a reality as evidenced by people’s experience and secondary data. The government needs to be sensitive to environmental changes while framing policies.
Dr E. Vivekanandan, retired scientist from the CMFRI who has done pioneering research into the impact of climate change on fisheries along the coast of India spoke on the status of fisheries and climate change in the GoM. The GoM can be divided into two: the Northern GoM (NGoM) extends from Rameshwaram to Thoothukudi, about a distance 160 km. Between 1906 and 2012, the temperature has increased by 1.29 C – from 27.37 to 28.66. He said that though the GoM was rich in biodiversity, it was relatively low in energy turnover. Such systems are more likely to be affected by externalities as their resilience is lower. In the NGoM, fishing as a livelihood was intensely practiced with landings having gone up. The oil sardine group, in particular, adapting to warmer temperatures, was increasing. He also said that they had spoken to fishermen who said that wind and temperature changes were definitely there and that cyclones were perceived as a major threat. However, climate change as a threat ranked lower than overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution. Vulnerability assessment showed that Ramathapuram area had highest vulnerability to various factors related to climate change. He concluded that the various pressures were closely interlinked and had to be addressed jointly to increase the resilience of the people as well as the ecosystem.
Mr V.Vivekanandan of fishMARC gave an overview of fishing methods and fisheries management issues in the NGoM. 52 villages and 11 distinct communities involved in fishing could be identified from Dhanushkodi to Thoothukudi harbour.  High diversity in fishing methods could be seen with large numbers of small scale fishing and high dependency on near shore resources. High diversity in skills and fishing methods was seen making it difficult for changes in fishing methods and fishing areas. It was also noticed that Small scale fishing is under greater stress due to exclusions and regulations related to conservation activities at the Gulf of Mannar National Park.
After this presentation, the focus shifted to the various issues in the Gulf of Mannar. Climate change took a back seat with coastal erosion due to structures, fishing techniques such as ring seine, pollution due to industries and aquaculture farms taking centre stage in the discussions. Still, a number of relevant points with respect to climate change did get mentioned. A lady participant was one of the few who pointed out that the impact of rising temperatures must be discussed first of all. She said that her kin fishing for chanks at a distance from the shore now brought back bleached shells and not the live ones that she remembered from her youth. A relevant point that came up was the need to re-look at the fishing ban period because increased temperatures were changing spawning regimes. Another participant said that it was necessary to look at the traditional knowledge of the communities and why they built their homes only in certain places and was it this that resulted in the variation in the vulnerabilities of different groups located in the region. 
As we move towards a new regime in terms of global CO2 levels, we need to spend more time looking at past data and records and understand how things have changed over time; and more importantly, what are the ways in which people have adapted to changes in their environment. We need to have good databases and records, not just scientific data but documented perceptions of people that help us to understand change and plan for the future.
Ahana Lakshmi