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Vanishing Coral Reefs- Need For Efficient Global Marine Legislation

Coral reefs are under assault and we need to voice their pain or else it might get too late, to make amends for them.
Coral reefs are popularly known as the rainforest of the ocean world and they are also home to one-third of the marine species. But a startling depletion has been witnessed in the number of coral reefs in the last few decades due to many reasons like the ocean acidification, bleaching of corals, outbreaks of coral-eating starfish, dynamite and cyanide fishing, illegal poaching of exclusive corals and many more. Coral reefs are the foundation of sea life and without them, sea will be blood without heart- completely useless.

The year 1997 was declared as Year of the Reef for spreading worldwide awareness with regard to aquatic ecosystem which is under attack by the humans due to their undying lust for exploitation of our nature. These reefs are of great significance as they provide high biological richness and products and services to human beings.[1]

It has been marked that before 1998 the harm caused to coral reefs could not be well noted as there were not efficient techniques to go underwater and the marine scientists usually relied on guesswork and anecdotal evidence which gave a rough figure that about 10% of the reefs were dead and another 30% would die in the upcoming 20-30 years if precautions are not taken.[2]

The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) was formed in 1996 and the main purpose of the organization was to collect, produce and spread the information about the coral reef health and suggest all the nations for a precise reef assessment.

This organizations will help the nations to keep a check on the deteriorating condition of the reefs and as per the 2004 GCRMN report it was claimed that about 20% of the world's corals were dead and about another 20% were facing an impending hazard due to the ignorant human activities.[3]
The existing international legislations with respect to sea law and coral reefs are neither sufficient and nor are they implemented appropriately. Even though, the countries are suggested to have regulations for conservation of coral reefs and other environment-based laws.

There are multi-lateral nature related agreements ratified and adopted by countries with the backing of international and inter-governmental organizations. But all these agreements can be fruitful only if they are implemented in all stages of the country- local, state and national level.[4] Due to lack of initiatives and awareness regarding the depletion, this arena is often ignored by majority of the countries and thus it is important to get a legally enforceable uniform regime for preservation of reefs and aquatic life, which should be binding for all the member nations.

The major reasons for degradation of reefs can be classified into three categories- natural causes, direct human causes and indirect human causes. Natural causes are the ones which may affect the reefs in form of hurricanes, underwater earthquakes, seabed volcanoes, typhoons and more and these natural causes are somewhere the consequences of climate change. Some of the alarming causes affecting the reefs are direct human causes like sedimentation, overfishing, sewage pollution and over usage of fertilizers.

These causes extinguish the biodiversity of corals rapidly. Even the new fishing techniques of using fine mesh nets, cyanide poisoning, use of dynamite leads to their deterioration. Apart from that there is indirect human influences which are climate change, global warming, rising of sea levels and one of the biggest concerns is ocean acidification due to excessive carbon dioxide absorption. As the oceans grow acidic the organisms stop depositing calcium carbonate and start dissolving.[5] Thus, these issues need to be addressed at an international platform.

It is often ignored that why are coral reefs actually important for the survival of this ecosystem as for a layman it might just seem like a bunch of colourful rocks but in reality, they are one of the most intricate, varied and ancient ecosystems of the planet. it is astonishing that even though corals inhabit less than a quarter of 1% of the earth's marine setting but they are home to more than quarter of all the marine fish species. In case the reefs vanish in the near future, it would lead to catastrophic results for both human and marine ecosystem. Reefs not only provide food to the humans but also act as shield for the coastlines when they are hit by some natural disasters like Tsunami, hurricane waves etc.

Many tiny Caribbean island's economy is dependent on coral reefs and in case of their disappearance, an essential food and medicinal source would be adversely affected and so will be the habitat of aquatic creatures.[6]

It is often seen, that even though degradation of coral reefs is a prime issue with regard to saving the ecosystem of all living beings, yet it is never seen as a political agenda by any national or international institutions.

There is no separate international treaty made exclusively for the purpose of safeguarding the aquatic life and the reefs. There are only symbolic gestures being made whereas no actual formal agreement is introduced for coral reef protection and management.[7] For example, the coastline of India is about 6000 km long and it occupies certain set of reefs, but the laws or policies formulated for coral reefs are technically hypothetical.

There are certain provisions in Indian legislations incorporated for the protection of reefs such as Environment Protection Act, 1986 and Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 includes all the coral areas in India. Wild life Protection Act has even recognised four species of corals, in its Schedule I Part IVA and thus as per the objective of the Act, Reef-building corals, black corals, organ pipes, Fire corals and sea fan come under the purview of wild animals.

There are many other laws mentioning coral reefs but they are not sufficient and the coral reefs are given no special status like islands, coastal areas. The only significant and punitive law India corporates, is that Coastal Regulation Zone in the notification of 1991under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 which restricts the industries, processes and operations for coral mining in the specified tide line.[8]

These laws are in regard with India but when the conservation comes to an international level, there is a instrument which aids in conserving and management of corals, known as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). These are references of the pre-existing patchwork of local, state and national attempts made for guarding the reefs. These efforts might vary from nation to nation in the amount of attention they are giving for protection of marine biosphere.[9]

There are numerous legal instruments which mention the preservation and protection of coral reefs either by direct or indirect means. But the level of implication of such instruments depends on the number of nations who actively participate, ratify and enforce such treaties into their nation-based legislations. The major guiding document for ocean issues is the United Nations for Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 (UNCLOS).

This was a milestone treaty in the development of international environment conservation and the treaty explicitly stated that the nations were required to sustain their marine species even in the internal waters. Apart from this convention there are many other conventions which speak about the reefs' conservation.[10]

The Convention on International trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) was adopted in 1963 and was open for ratification in 1973 and it was finally enforced in 1975. The convention discourses the problems of international trade of endangered species, which includes the trade of reefs also. As per the reports, it was stated that there has been a growth in the trade of coral reefs in the international market and it also marked that illicit trade of corals was also witnessed.

And as per the latest reports of the TRAFFIC USA, it was established that Indonesia leads in supplies of coral reefs (about 95%) and USA imports around 85% of the dead corals and 98% of the live corals in the international trade. Thus, this convention keeps a check on the trade of reefs around the world and also focuses on purchase of properly documented coral species and not by any illegal means. If enforced properly, it can be useful in tussle of destruction of coral reefs.[11]

There are certain other conventions enacted for the protection of biodiversity and preservation of cultural and natural heritage which give a special mention for the protection of coral reefs. The United Nations Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage gives special importance to the conservation of natural heritage which is under threat and might perish if not preserved now. Some of the coral centric conventions are the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, has presented machinery for international acknowledgement by marking of the coral reef's sites.

Lately, there are about 277 Wetlands of International Importance that congregates coral formations all over the world. But the definition of Wetlands might not be sufficient enough to incorporate all coral species.[12]

In 1994, there were certain measures taken to bring about awareness on the degrading position of the coral reefs and these efforts were taken by International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI). The founding members of this initiative were Australia, Jamaica, France, Sweden, the Philippines, Japan, UK and USA along with the UN bodies, regional organizations and multilateral banks and even some environment-based NGOs.

The main goal of this initiative was to bring uniformity and coordination at international, national, regional research and bring about better monitoring programs to ensure effective and balanced use of such scarce resources. It also concentrated on transparency with regard to information of marine species required for proper administration of reefs and its associated surroundings. Thus, it can be seen that there are many initiatives taken at international sphere but they are not properly enforced in the respective nations.[13]

Thus, there are certain recommendations on which the national and international bodies can work to bring fluency in the working of existing initiatives and also make people aware about the importance of coral reefs in our ecosystem. First of all, there should be certain marine areas which should be demarcated as no take zone. These zones clearly prohibit the taking and harvesting of any marine resources for any trade or personal purposes. Then, there should be the use of better fishing practices especially in the areas where there are reefs, the fishing techniques should be limited to only those ones which are least harmful for the corals.

Then, for better recognition of reefs, the unknown species of the corals should be added to the list of CITES, so that we can have a better track record of such species. Lastly would suggest that the conventions lack one point in them, which is that there is no punishment or fine mentioned in case of breach of any laws which makes it way too lenient and thus people trading such marine species illegally are neither tried or punished.

Hence, there is need of some stringent legislations which imposes fine and trial sessions for heavy breach of any of the abovementioned conventions. Lastly, I would like to conclude that human beings should try to sustain their lives in accordance to other living beings rather than trying to establish their superiority over them because if they revolt, we will be in no position to defend ourselves.

  1. R. RIDDERHOF, Coral Reefs under Threat? Peace Palace Library, 23/04/2020 02:14 am,
  2. Id
  3. Odyssey Expeditions, Living Corals, 23/04/2020 2:35 am,
  4. Rajesh Sehgal, Legal Regime Towards Protecting Coral Reefs: An International Perspective and Indian Scenario, Law Environment and Development Journal, 26/04/2020 02:13 am,
  5. The Encyclopedia of Earth, Coral Reefs and Climate Change, 26/04/2020 3:14 am,
  6. Dirk Bryant et al., Reefs at Risk: A Map Based Indicator of Threats to the World's Coral Reefs 9 (1998), 26/04/2020 2:53 am,''''s_coral_reefs
  7. Supra note 3
  8. Devaki Panini, Law and Policy for Conservation and Management of Coral Reef Areas in India, 26/04/2020 3:44 am,
  9. Supra 4, Pg 189
  10. Id
  11. Id
  12. Supra 1
  13. Supra 1

    Award Winning Article Is Written By: Ms.Rhea Banerjee

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