Easing Troubled Waters: Conserving the Gulf of Mannar’s Biodiversity

Easing Troubled Waters
Photo: Benoît Marquet/UNDP India

UNDP has partnered with the Government of Tamil Nadu to demonstrate the possibilities of conserving the environment and encouraging sustainable development processes in the Gulf of Mannar.

On the south eastern coast of India, the sun begins to come up over the sea as a fisherman in a checked dhoti shakes fish from a net with a rhythmic movement so well-practiced that he barely seems to glance at net, fish or his hands. It’s the end of a long night of fishing, not far from a protected marine park in the Gulf of Mannar, Tamil Nadu, but he’s happy to chat about the mesh on the nets he uses. This mesh is wider than the mesh he used to use, and it can spare small fingerling fish and other unwanted catch, helping ensure more sustainable fishing in these waters. Just a few kilometers away, the son of another fisherman, 26-year-old Kirubkavan, is studying to be an electrician, moving away from a long family tradition of fishing.


  • Special allocation of US$ 2 million by the Tamil Nadu govt after project completion, which has ensured sustainability of conservation activities in the region
  • Joint patrolling and other project initiatives have increased coral reef cover by five percent between 2005 and 2009
  • Coal mining has stopped completely and a ban on seaweed collection has been put in place
  • 77,000 fisher folk have benefited from awareness generation activities undertaken by the Village Marine Conservation and Eco-development Councils
  • About 2,000 youth from fishing communities have undergone short vocational trainings on 22 courses
  • About 30,000 women benefited from corpus fund of US$ 1.4 million, set up to micro finance committee members. This has now increased to US$ 1.8 million
  • An educational centre on coastal and marine biodiversity attracts more than 500 visitors daily

At first glance, both stories seem divergent, but in reality they represent the change that is evident in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, home to one of the world’s richest concentrations of marine species. Much of its biodiversity depends on the coral reef that is the lifeline not only for the various species that inhabit the reef, but for close to 1,50,000 fisher folk that rely on the coast for their livelihoods. Yet, it is a region increasingly under threat. Commercial exploitation, damage from over fishing, illegal mining of coral reef, changes in the environment and a growing population dependent on the coast for livelihoods is threatening the region’s rich biodiversity. In the decade between 1988 and1998, nearly 25 square kilometers of coral reef has been lost.

Since 2002, supported by the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Development Programme has partnered with the Government of Tamil Nadu to demonstrate the possibilities of conserving the environment and encouraging sustainable development processes in the region through the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust. This has been achieved through three main strategies. One, demonstration of sustainable coastal management and enhanced livelihood opportunities for local communities; two – empowerment of local communities to manage local resources in partnership with government and other stakeholders, and three, strengthened institutional capacity of communities to implement participatory conservation strategies. Results are visible. Coral reef cover has increased by five percent between 2005 and 2009. Coral mining has stopped and joint patrolling initiatives by forest department, fisheries, coast guards and local youth have ensured stronger enforcement. Seaweed collection out of the Gulf of Mannar National Park has been regularized, and a two-and-a-half month ban imposed each year helps ensure the coast is not touched during crucial regeneration and breeding months. Since 2010, no new registrations for bottom trawlers have been issued in the Gulf of Mannar.

According to Srinivasan Iyer, Head of the Energy and Environment Unit at UNDP, “Biodiversity conservation cannot be effective without the active engagement of local communities who depend on natural resources in their daily lives, and indeed, the success of many conservation initiatives can be attributed to local action and ownership.” Community involvement therefore has been intrinsic to conservation efforts, and 250 grassroots organizations or Village Marine Conservation and Eco Development Committees employ local youth to support protection management and serve as anti-poaching watchers. Significant awareness building efforts mean that fishermen in the area are well versed in fishing techniques that encourage sustainable fishing.

For many like Kirubkavan, the project has helped expand horizons to look beyond traditional coastal and marine-based livelihoods. Vocational courses for the children of poor fisher folk in electronics repair, welding, computer science printing technology and nursing, seek to provide the opportunity to diversify livelihoods. For women, these have been particularly important. Over 2,000 self-help groups have benefited from development of alternative livelihoods and enterprises. Women have pursued income generating activities such as weaving, jasmine cultivation, jaggery production and so on. In 2012, as the project came to a close, the Tamil Nadu government has ensured the sustainability of the Trust and conservation activities through allocating US$ 2 million funds from the state budget over the next four years (2013-2017).  

India is one of the top ten species rich nations in the world. Yet, it is evident that India’s environment and biodiversity are at a crucial turning point. Close to 275 million depend on the ecosystem for day-to-day subsistence. For India’s coastline this is particularly acute. The 7,500-kilometre coastline is home to 20 percent of the country’s population including many of the poorest. With the growing impact of climate change, this dependency on the coastal livelihoods is under threat. Strategies such as adopted in the Gulf of Mannar, that empower local communities to manage their resources more effectively and that encourage livelihood diversification, represent important efforts to localize the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in India, and in doing so, provide a useful approach to integrating biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction strategies.

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