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At Charna Island, one of Pakistan’s worst environmental threats yet

WWF calls for action as govt survey explores industrial causes

SAMAA | - Posted: Dec 11, 2020 | Last Updated: 10 months ago
SAMAA |
Posted: Dec 11, 2020 | Last Updated: 10 months ago
Corals are habitats for hundreds of different species of fish and other wildlife under the sea. Photo: Khizer Sharif

After months indoors Khizer Sharif was thrilled to go back to diving at Balochistan’s Charna Island surrounded by steep cliffs, soft sand and gently crashing waves.

He had come here frequently for underwater expeditions. “We decided to go skin diving that day because the tides were high,” he said.

Skin diving is a crossover between underwater diving and snorkeling. A skin diver goes under water while breathing through a snorkel, and does breath-hold dives, swimming down to observe interesting objects or marine life.

Churna-island
A picture of the Charna Island in Balochistan. Photo: Nyal Mueenuddin/WWF-Pakistan

“We were diving in an area facing the HUBCO and BYCO plants.” When the scuba diver went down, he saw traces of something that shook him to the core. “The colorful and vibrant coral that I saw the last time I visited that island, which was in February, had turned white as snow,” Sharif said. “Without colour, the coral were dead.” He was looking at coral bleaching.

He took pictures and videos and immediately reached out to WWF-Pakistan to alert them that the country is facing one of the gravest environmental threats in the world. 

What is coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching takes place when the flamboyant and vibrant coral turn completely white. “Coral are delicate living organisms,” according to WWF-Pakistan Technical Director Moazzam Khan. “They trap algae inside their tissue, which creates food for multiple small fish and the coral itself by absorbing sunlight.”

coral-bleaching
The white patch is the coral that have died because of bleaching. Photo: Khizer Sharif

Coral typically inhabit tropical oceans and are found in shallow depths. “They are called the rainforests of the ocean because they are considered the most diverse ecosystems the Earth possesses,” Khan explained, adding that they occupy less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean area.

Coral bleaching occurs when, because of environmental changes and human intervention, the relationship between the zooxanthella (algae) and the coral breaks down. “In such conditions, corals expel the algae living in their tissues, leading them to turn completely white,” he explained.

Coral begin to starve after bleaching and eventually die.

The first few signs of coral bleaching appear at Charna Island. Photo: Khizer Sharif

“In the last decade, incidents of coral bleaching have surfaced across the world but this is the first time the phenomenon has been seen in Pakistan,” Khan said, adding that this is bad because Pakistan doesn’t have a lot of coral. “We don’t have coral reefs, just patches of them scattered near Astola Island, Ormara and Charna Island.”

He said in 2018, some divers noticed signs of bleaching on coral at Charna Island but that was limited to the northern side of the patches. “The bleaching was ignored then because of its insignificance.”

But this October, it was noted that the bleaching had worsened and spread. “The Porites (a reef building coral) has gone completely white, signaling that it’s dead,” Khan said.

“It looks like the bleaching is spreading around Charna Island but we have no information about anything similar from other parts of the coastal areas.”

Why is coral being bleached at Charna Island?

While climate change is one of the factors behind coral bleaching, the WWF-Pakistan director thinks its not the primary cause.

The white patch is the coral that have died because of bleaching. Photo: Khizer Sharif

“The temperature in the affected area seems to be normal and no major change was noticed,” he said. “Although there was a heatwave in the Arabian Sea in 2019, it didn’t last long and can’t be held responsible for bleaching.”

He pointed out that the heatwave was recorded across the sea whereas the bleaching was just restricted to Charna Island.

Diver Sharif is of a similar opinion. He believes one of the factors that contribute to coral bleaching is the trend of underwater diving that started in the country a few years ago. According to reports, during diving season, between 500 and 1,500 people from Karachi and other areas visit the island on weekends.

“Groups on multiple social media platforms take people diving to Charna Island for very little money,” Sharif said. “All these are inexperienced, untrained and unlicensed people who don’t follow the protocols for the sport.

“Traditionally, when someone wants to dive, they’re first taught the basics of it in a pool before going out in the ocean and each diver has a separate instructor,” the diver explained. Even after training, a non-diver is allowed to go only 30 feet into the sea.

But when these small groups take people to the island, none of this is followed.

Sharif said non-regularised people end up damaging the environment. “You will see food boxes and other trash floating in the water after they leave. This pollutes the sea and is a threat to the creatures living in it.” 

Another reason for bleaching highlighted by WWF’s Khan is the industrial activities taking place on the island.

“There’s a thermal power plant, an oil refinery and a single point mooring in the area,” he said. “Another coal powered plant is under construction at the site.”

These plants dispose of most of their waste in the sea. Khan revealed that there are plans of establishing a liquid petroleum gas (LPG) terminal near the island as well, which will cause a lot of dredging in the area.

Dead corals in shallow water at Charna Island. Photo: Khizer Sharif

“Facilities like this on the island will have impacts that aren’t just confined to coral bleaching. They will wipe out all the coral from the area,” he warned.

Another reason for the bleaching is overfishing. There are over 10,000 fishermen dependent on the island for their livelihoods.

“In the past few years, abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear has been found on the island,” Khan said. This ghost fishing gear traps the coral patches and kills them in the process. And it’s not just a threat for coral–small fish and shellfish are also at risk.

“The gear smothers coral because of its abrasive nature,” the director explained. Debris gets caught in the nets and eventually is encrusted onto both plants and animals. This then blocks sunlight from reaching the coral, eventually leading to its death.

Khan said that while the increase in global warming and rise in temperatures is already a concern, other factors add to the increasing depletion of coral. “Over 75% of coral across the world have already died because of the global heatwave between 2014 and 2017.”

It is very important for us to start taking steps to protect the remaining coral we have left, he added.

Government launches study for bleaching assessment  

After the coral bleaching was reported, the Balochistan government formed a team of experts to find out what happened. 

Balochistan Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Director Imran Saeed told SAMAA Digital that a team has been staying at the island after the bleaching was reported. “We have collected samples from different parts of the island and have sent them to a laboratory to prepare an analytical report.”

Team of experts collecting samples for testing of corals at the Charna Island. Photo: Balochistan Environmental Protection Agency/Facebook

The BEPA is working with the Lasbela University of Agriculture, Water and Marine Sciences on a chemical and biological study to assess and evaluate coral bleaching at the island. This is the first time research like this is being conducted, Saeed said.

He revealed that so far, the samples collected show that the bleaching didn’t take place because of warm waters. “The water temperature is alarming when it is above 27 degrees but our measurement show that the temperature lies between 25 and 27 degrees.”

A team of expert record the temperature of the water at Charna Island. Photo: Balochistan Environmental Protection Agency/Facebook

It is suspected that the bleaching took place because of the increased industrial activity but nothing concrete can be said right now, the director said. Saeed added that it will take the team a week to investigate and prepare an initial report.

Why should we care about coral bleaching?

The Earth is an ocean planet. Ocean plants produce up to 85% of oxygen we breathe. According to New York Times, coral reefs are the most biodiverse environments in the ocean.

Just like any other plant, coral produce oxygen for the ocean. Residing as deep as 100 feet in the sea, the ocean depends on coral to keep many species alive. According to one study, land plants can only produce about one-third of the oxygen we breathe while the rest is dependent on coral.

So, if coral becomes extinct, humans will lose one of their primary sources of oxygen.

Coral play a key role in the ecosystem as well. They have hundreds and thousands of species living around them. When a specie has a high biodiversity, it creates an environment where multiple species can coexist.

Bleaching was reported in multiple coral patches across the Charna Island. Photo: Khizer Sharif

Over 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard coral and numerous other kinds of species such as sea turtles, sharks and stingray are dependent on coral for multiple reasons. If these coral become extinct, it means that all these species will be homeless and without the resources they need to survive. To put it simply, these species will die.

When these species die, the food chain gets affected, which will eventually affect humans too. 

Scientists say there are so many species thriving around the coral that have yet to be discovered. According to environmentalist Noorul Huda Daudpota, these new species can be used for medical research. “If the research is successful, medicine with cures to diseases such as cancer, arthritis and bacterial infections can be discovered.”

Most importantly, coral has supported the economy for years, especially the tourism industry. Coral, with their colours and vibrancy, attract a lot of tourists. This means they provide jobs to people who are employed in the tourism sector.

Coral predominantly benefit the fishing industry as well. As they are habitats of multiple species, fishermen usually get their catch from areas where coral are located. In Pakistan, the fishing sector contributes about 1% to the GDP and provides jobs to 1% of the country’s labour force. The extinction of coral will result in losses of millions of rupees and unemployment for hundreds of people.

Over 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard coral and numerous other kinds of species such as sea turtles, sharks and stingray are dependent on coral for their sustenance. Photo: Khizer Sharif

Daudpota said it’s very important that the government starts thinking about sustainable fishing grounds to prevent overfishing. “We are too dependent on nature for our livelihoods,” she said. “We keep taking from it without thinking of giving back.”

The environmentalist added that Charna Island should be declared a Marine Protected Area, which is what WWF-Pakistan has been trying to do for years. 

A Marine Protected Area is a clearly defined geographical space dedicated and managed through legal means to achieve long-term conservation of nature, the International Union for Conservation of Nature describes.

These areas are important for conserving biodiversity and ecosystems. Pakistan’s first Marine Protected Area was Astola Island.

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