Coral

Coral and algae have been on earth for 160 million years, meaning they were around at the time of the dinosaurs. Two million species are found in, on, and around all coral reefs which cover less than a quarter of 1% of the world’s entire marine environment.

Corals are neither plants nor rocks but colonies of thousands of tiny lives having tentacles, similar to jellyfish. A living coral reef is unimaginably beautiful. It is made up on polyps having soft sac-like bodies that secrete cup-like calcareous skeletons in which they live. Multiplying thus, an intricate structures is continuously but extremely slowly formed because the reef can only grow from the level to which air and light penetrate. Therefore under the new growing coral, the dead coral gets compacted. Coral reefs, atolls and lagoons are home to thousands of species of sea creatures like seahorses whose habitat is coral reefs and sea-grass beds. (They are any way threatened with extinction because they are used in Chinese medicine and collected as souvenirs.) Shoals of different colourful fish and a variety of life forms are a common sight for those who snorkel or cruise in glass bottom boats.


Coral Reefs of India


Dugongs or sea cows (estimated population 250 in 2015) which are massive slow breeding sea mammals often mistaken by sailors as the mythical mermaids, exist in shallow waters with coral reef formations like around the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Rani Jhansi Marine National Park in Richie’s Archipelago, South Andaman. These coral reefs and the one around Lakshadweep Islands (where the dugong population is extinct) are more fascinating than the ones off Port Okha and Dwarka of the Gulf of Kutch Marine National Park, and off Rameswaram in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve between India and Sri Lanka.

In 2016 the National Board of Wildlife selected the dugong (in addition to the Ganges river dolphin, Great Indian bustard and the Manipur Sangai deer) to be to be studied and preserved for 5 years by the Wildlife Institute of India for Rs 23.58 crore. Fishing and pollution has reduced the distribution range of dugongs by 85% so let us hope this effort and expenditure will help them and the coral reefs.

Corals are also found near Gaveshani Bank about 100 kms offshore from Mangalore, and several areas along the eastern and western coast like at the Malvan Coral Reef Sanctuary near Mumbai. Not long ago the Zoological Survey of India located three pristine reefs off the coast of Sindhudurg in Maharashtra. Such patch reefs as they are called, are found off Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The total coral reef area of India is 5,790 sq kms – 10th largest worldwide.

In 2007 the BBC reported that two islets, Poomarichan and Villanguchalli, located in a group of islands in the Gulf of Mannar, an area considered to contain some of the world’s richest marine biological resources, sank into the sea due to indiscriminate and illegal coral reef mining over many decades. Corals, rich in calcium carbonate, were mined for use as a binding material in the construction industry.

In 2019 underwater images captured showed nearly all damaged corals in Palk Bay had recovered while 85% of corals had regenerated in the Gulf of Mannar. These areas that had earlier suffered bleaching had suddenly sprung back to life.


Coral Reefs are to Oceans, as Trees are to Land


Like in other countries, in India too, the hard skeleton of the coral reefs are mined for coral. As coral reefs grow at an extremely slow rate of 1 to 2.5 cm a year, mining destroys not only the work of centuries in a matter of hours, but kills countless lives. In the 1980s a cement company extracted coral sands in the Gulf of Kutch. For years they dredged out a million tonnes of coralline material including live corals, thus destroying 50% of the coral reef.

Coral reefs are as important to oceans as trees are to land. But unfortunately, climate change (ocean heat waves) is bleaching and harming the world’s corals. Rampant development is killing corals – far more than blamed. For example, 70% in the Persian Gulf have gone and the main reason is UAE’s Palm Jumeirah which buried three square miles of living coral under tons of rock and sand (that this artificial archipelago is said to be sinking is significant).

Even dead coral reefs are home to a multitude of marine creatures. Illicit mining of coral reefs is done under the pretext of taking out only worn-out corals called finger-jellies. In 2015 poison injecting robot submarines that assassinate the crown-of-thorns starfish or sea stars that live on coral polyps was put to use. Instead of killing them, BWC feels that at least tourists should not be allowed to use sunscreen – oxybenzone a UV filtering chemical compound in 3,500 brands of sunscreen worldwide is damaging coral and is especially fatal to baby coral, and high concentrations of this chemical are found around coral reefs popular with tourists.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) there are 55,000 coral reefs that occupy less than a quarter of 1% of the earth’s marine environment, yet they are threatened by humans. In March 2012, the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) recommended that the World Heritage Committee should consider listing Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as a world heritage site. In 27 years the coral cover of this reef had halved, and if such trends continued it could halve again by 2022. But by 2016, the situation was worse than expected: 93% of this reef (the world’s largest living ecosystem) had been affected by bleaching which occurs when the water gets too warm and living algae are expelled causing the coral to calcify, turn white and die. In other words, just 7% of the Great Barrier Reef had not been affected by bleaching. The rest of the coral unless mildly bleached was unlikely to recover even if the water temperature dropped.


Coral reefs along the east coast of Africa have been badly hit due to ocean warming and acidification. Tourism is suffering because coral bleaching has affected the scuba diving industry. The World Bank says losses amount to $2.2 million in Zanzibar and $15.09 million in Mombasa.

 

Moreover, in January 2018 to stop the predatory coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish devouring the Greet Barrier Reef a multimillion-dollar reef-management campaign (read mass killing of starfish) was announced by Australia.


This was soon followed by a ‘sun shield’ to save the Great Barrier Reef. The shield consisting of an ultra-thin surface film (50,000 times thinner than a human hair) that was completely biodegradable (contained calcium carbonate the same ingredient corals use to make their hard skeletons) was tried out. It was designed to sit on the surface of the water above the corals to provide an effective barrier against the sun.


In August 2019 The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said that the health of the world’s largest coral reef system had deteriorated since the last review in 2014 and many species including dolphins, dugongs, sharks, rays and turtles were being threatened.


In view of plastic making coral reefs sick, a team of researchers led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia examined more that 1,20,000 corals on 159 reefs from Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand. In 2018 they concluded that when coral reefs (that cover only about 0.02% of the ocean floor but provide habitat for million species of young fish) come in contact with plastic trash in the ocean, their risk of becoming diseased increases from 4% to 89%.

In 2019 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated that heat had again threatened Hawaiian Islands’ corals. (Four years earlier in 2015 half the coastline’s coral had been killed.) Researchers using high-tech equipment to monitor the reefs had found that the Papa Bay and elsewhere had begun bleaching.

On World Oceans Day 8 June 2022, the Maharashtra State Mangrove Cell signed an agreement with the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research - National Institute of Oceanography (CSIR-NIO) to carry out a baseline study to identify potential sites for coral restoration along the state’s coast. This one-year project was under the Government of India - United Nations Development Programme - Green Climate Fund project titled “Enhancing Climate Resilience of India’s Coastal Community” would identify stressed coral zones and find out the causes that are stressing the ecosystem and strive to reduce them; also sites for restoration in sub-tidal regions would be identified, as well as prospective donor sites.


Corals of Commerce


In view of a quarter of the earth’s corals having disappeared, marine biologists at the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Summerland Key, Florida, USA, discovered how to grow coral colonies in shallow salt-water tanks at an astonishing rate. Started with 1½ inch coral fragments from a parent colony and with the application of a technique called micro-fragmenting, the coral grew 25-50 times faster than the normal rate. The lab created corral is used for reef-building – transplanting onto dead or dying reefs that took centuries to develop.

In August 2019 the Florida Aquarium in Apollo Beach near Tampa declared that it had induced spawning of 18 species of Pacific coral, based on which they hoped to breed colonies that can one day repopulate the beleaguered Florida reef system.

Looking back the Gauls decorated their war helmets and weapons with coral. The Romans prized it for its medicinal value: as an antidote to poisons, a charm against pests, for reducing inflammation and for cooling the blood. Till a century ago was highly esteemed by physicians, believed to assist infants cut their teeth, and was highly valued as a jewel that emeralds, rubies and pearls were exchanged for corals. Some Indians continue to believe that it keeps evil spirits away. Red coral/moonga is also known as vidram, angaarak mani, mirjaan, marjaan, pravaal, parvara and praval; and in Ayurveda red coral ingredients are pravala, praval pishti and moonga.

Worldwide coral is sold as gemstones at tourist destinations, e.g. coral beads at Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet. In India red coral or moonga is used mainly for jewellery. (Abroad it is used in shop window displays too.) India imports red coral (known as precious coral as well) from Mediterranean countries and Japan.

In February 2016, at the Inland Container Depot in Tughlaqabad, 15,000 kgs of red corals worth Rs 1.8 crore were found hidden in a container from China and seized by the customs department. The importer had declared the corals as shilajit stones. There was a strong suspicion that this coral was poached from the Indian Ocean and sent to China and smuggled back into India.


Surprisingly in November 2011 the Bengaluru Police misinterpreted the Wildlife Act and trade in coral by jewellers was banned for some time. However, red coral can easily be substituted with red jasper/lal akik in jewellery because it looks like it and has similar properties although to a lesser degree.

In January 2017, the export of worked coral (horn and other animal carving material) and articles thereof, to the European Union was allowed subject to a ‘Shipment Clearance Certificate’ and a ‘Production Process Certificate’ which is actually a formality required for all Animal By-Products exported from India to the EU.

In 2018 BWC was shocked to know that a free sample of “100% natural coral grains” calcium supplement marketed by Lupin Ltd was being distributed. Not only that, but the company had the audacity of affixing a green veg symbol on it. BWC immediately complained to the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India pointing out that the company was cheating vegetarians. We also wrote to the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change reminding the that coral reefs in India are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 1991 issued under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. It was therefore their duty to ensure that coral is not commercially utilised by any other company. There was no point in spending large amounts on studies and research pertaining to coral restoration and awareness, if its use was not prohibited even if it is imported as in their case from Japan.


Coral Farming is Cruel Coral Cutting


Coral Vita a commercial land-based coral farm in the Bahamas was awarded the new global environment Earthshot Prize of GBP 1 million under the “Revive Our Oceans” category in 2021. This prize provides financial backing to scale up innovative solutions for climate crises. Coral Vita unnaturally “grows” coral species that are resilient to changing ocean conditions up to 50 times faster.


This is accomplished by first “harvesting” (detaching) coral from the ocean reef and placing it in tanks filled with clean seawater on their land-based farm. The coral is then cut into tiny pieces via a technique called micro-fragmenting and placed in the tank with pieces of the same coral near each other. The injured corals heal while fusing together and thus grow.


Depending on the specie of coral, it takes 6-18 months for it to mature. When big and strong, it is uprooted and planted back into the reef with underwater drills and the use of non-toxic glue, with the hope that it can once again provide a home for the species that live there.

No thought whatsoever is given to the coral polyps and the harm inflicted upon them. Corals are carnivorous marine invertebrates that form compact colonies of many identical individual polyps that have a simple nervous system called a nerve net that extends from their mouths to their tentacles. They have the capacity of smell and taste which enables them to detect prey.

So how can it be ethically right to cut up these living creatures into tiny bits?


Live Corals and Rock


The latest trend is to use live coral polyps (these marine invertebrates are mainly captured from the wild) in reef aquariums because they exhibit marine biofluorescence – when blue light (not sunlight) hits coral it makes its own red/orange/green light out of it. They are being sold by shops, online and even illegally imported into India. Live rock is also illegal but in demand for saltwater tanks. It is called “live” because of the many micro- and macroscopic marine life that are found to be living on and inside it. This ocean rock is actually calcium carbonate skeletons of dead coral that were a part of a natural coral reef.


In April 2022 as many as 466 live corals packed in jars containing water and kept in 2 bags were seized by Pune Customs from 2 Indian passengers arriving from Dubai. They intended to sell them.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Illegal Trade of Marine Species in India 2015-21 Report states 120 sea cucumbers, 16 seahorse & pipefish, 18 sea fans (a variety of coral), and 16 seashells, corals & calcareous sponge marine wildlife was seized and cases registered during the 7 year period. They were being smuggled to China, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Dubai.

Page last updated on 25/06/22