The 13th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS COP13) was hosted by India at Gandhinagar, Gujarat from the 15th to the 22nd of February, 2020. The theme of the meeting was ‘Migratory species connect the planet and together we welcome them home’.
The WCS-India Marine Conservation Program organised a side-event on 20th February, titled Navigating Troubled Waters: Conserving India’s Vast Marine Spaces, with a focus on discussing challenges of conserving marine systems, and discussing issues of conserving Angria Bank.
Ms. Zoya Tyabji initiated the side-event with an introductory note. Following this, Mr. Avik Banerjee introduced the challenges faced by India’s marine systems and the broad initiatives in place by multiple institutions to help tackle them. The presentation emphasised on the benefits of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) towards conservation, and highlighted the potential for Angria Bank to be notified as designated area.
Following this presentation, a short film on the recent scientific expedition to Angria Bank by Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology (CMLRE), Mangrove Cell- Maharashtra Forest Department, WCS-India and other partners was played. The film highlighted the rich marine biodiversity at Angria Bank. Being a submerged plateau located within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the country, this region hosts 650 sq km of coral and algal habitats that support various trophic guilds essential for stable ecosystem functioning. Protecting Angria Bank will therefore safeguard India’s natural marine heritage, allow for the regeneration of marine fisheries within the area, and provide insurance against climate change.
Dr. Susan Lieberman, Vice-President of International Policy, WCS, supported the efforts by highlighting global MPAs and their efficacy. She put forward the integrative approach of a ‘Planet Ocean’ and the urgent need to effectively protect and manage the inter-connected marine systems of the world to avoid anthropogenic degradation of the living seas. She also highlighted that each country is expected to protect 10% of their marine spaces by 2020, and the new promise towards protecting 30% of the oceans worldwide by 2030 as per the zero draft. Dr. Lieberman noted that “MPAs protect ecosystems, species and genetic diversity. They also provide resilience against climate change. The spill-over effect of MPAs will greatly benefit nearby non-protected waters, on which communities are dependent.”
After the introductory presentations, a panel of experts from various fields provided valuable insight into MPAs and their scope for marine conservation in India. This panel included Mr. Soumitra Dasgupta, IFS, Inspector General of Forests, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), Mr. N. Vasudevan, IFS, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Maharashtra Forest Department, Mr. Surendra Kumar, IFS, Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala Forest Department, Dr. K. Sivakumar, Scientist F, Department of Endangered Species Management, Wildlife Institute of India, Dr. B. Ingole, Visiting Scientist, National Centre for Polar & Ocean Research, Dr. Susan Lieberman and Mr. Luke Warwick, Associate Director, Sharks and Rays Program, WCS.
Panel discussion on marine protected areas (MPAs) with an emphasis on Angria Bank (From left to right: Dr. K. Sivakumar, Mr. N. Vasudevan, Mr. S. Dasgupta, Dr. B. Ingole, Mr. S. Kumar and Mr. L. Warwick) © MoEFCC
The panel discussion focused on the current status of MPAs and their management. In particular, the panel members fielded questions on Angria Bank as a potential MPA, and other questions based on expertise of the panellist. Dr. Vardhan Patankar, Program Head of Marine Conservation Program, moderated the panel discussion and concluded the session.
Symphyllia identified at Angria Bank. Photo courtesy: Vardhan Patankar
The panel stressed on the need to increase coverage of protected areas in India’s territorial waters and EEZ, while protecting the livelihoods and food safety of the millions dependent on India’s marine systems. A common theme of balance emerged from this discussion - between the needs of stakeholder communities and biodiversity preservation. In order to achieve this balance, engagement of stakeholders and experts with government and non-government organisations is crucial.
This concept was elaborated upon by Mr. Dasgupta in the context of India. Although India’s conservation policies have traditionally centered around terrestrial systems, India has now made considerable progress via marine-specific policies and legislature. He also reiterated that conservation action in the country must be implemented keeping in mind the welfare of the people in the region. Mr. Dasgupta noted that, “The central government and MoEF&CC have coordinated with coastal state governments to enhance MPAs. We have proposed the marine turtle policy and the marine stranding policy under this initiative. We are committed to enhancing India’s protected area coverage. At the same time, since India is a populous and strategically important country, national interest has to be considered as well. To strike the right balance, conservation and development must go hand in hand.”
Speaking on management of India’s MPAs, Dr. Sivakumar noted that “There are significant lacunae in terms of management of MPAs. Thus, it is a step forward that MPAs are now included under the National Wildlife Action Plan.” Mr. Vasudevan emphasised on MPAs by stating that “Although calculating AICHI targets in terms of territorial waters and area is useful for international regulation; for a diverse country like India, it may not be ideal. To bring 10% of India’s waters under protected area, 0.2 million square km of India’s EEZ needs to be under protected area coverage. India’s waters are not only ‘troubled waters’, but ‘uncharted waters’ as well.”
The purpose to notify Angria bank as a designated area for marine conservation was supported by the panel of experts, who highlighted the need for extending India’s network of marine protected areas. Mr. Vasudevan noted, “We were very excited to venture outside India’s territorial waters for a scientific purpose during our (NIO-UNDP) expedition to Angria bank in 2014. I hope this will be carried forward and will result in protecting of this unique ecosystem.”
As a rich, healthy reef habitat, Angria bank serves as nursery and resting ground for marine fauna. Dr. Ingole stressed upon the need to protect this habitat, noting “Productive coral reefs such as Angria bank are crucial nursery and resting grounds; and support a great deal of endemic and commercial species. Being an offshore area, Angria bank is currently not subjected to multiple stressors; and it is a good time to protect this habitat.”
Goniopora identified at Angria Bank. Photo courtesy: Vardhan Patankar
Protection of such habitats is hugely influential in protection of local populations of marine fauna—in conjunction with regional and national species-oriented protection plans. However, as noted by Mr. Luke Warwick, much larger areas are required for protection of migratory species and larger fauna—while ensuring coordination between policies of range countries and international regulations. Mr. Warwick noted that, “New literature has suggested great diversity in terms of migratory behaviour in sharks. MPAs can hugely benefit sharks if managed the right way. As reef associated sharks move fairly short distances, MPAs will be highly effective if the right conditions are maintained—such as no use MPAs. In case of multiple use MPAs, shark-specific plans are required. The fundamental step to ensuring conservation of sharks and rays is coupling MPAs with national and regional protection plans and policies.”
Dr. Lieberman stressed on this subject, and the need to protect the habitat before pressures increase. Due to Angria bank’s distance from coast, compliance with national and regional regulations is relatively easier to obtain after designation as protected area. Dr Lieberman also recommended highlighting the initiative and its success in international conferences and meetings to ensure visibility of India’s marine protected areas in the international community. Such meetings can help India in showcasing its efforts of conserving marine ecosystems and in achieving its AICHI targets .
The side event was concluded on a note that collective efforts are needed in order to conserve marine habitats and species in India.