Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and complex ecosystems on earth. They are home to thousands of species of vertebrates, invertebrates and marine flora. Coral reefs are also of major economic significance to coastal communities, generating valuable income through fisheries and tourism. A large segment of the populations in tropical coastal regions rely on coral reefs for their food security. In Sri Lanka, nearly two thirds of the animal protein consumed by in the country is derived from marine resources, of which around 50% is comes directly from shallow coastal waters. Coral reefs also provide numerous indirect benefits such as coastal protection from storms. Pharmaceutical research has revealed that coral reef organisms may contain important chemical compounds that could be useful in developing cures for diseases such as cancer.
However, coral reefs are also among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. Pollution, increased sedimentation and coastal runoff, unplanned coastal development and unregulated tourism, destructive fishing, and overfishing have taken its toll on coral reefs worldwide. It is estimated that more than 50% of global coral reefs are now degraded and around another 25% are in danger of being lost. In addition to anthropogenic impacts, natural impacts such as climate change and global sea surface temperature rise have resulted in coral bleaching and the degradation of large extents of coral reefs worldwide. Reefs across the Indian Ocean lost more than 80% of live coral during a mass coral bleaching event in 1998. In Sri Lanka, almost all shallow coral reefs along the south coast are now heavily degraded and most reefs in other areas are either suffering from decreasing live coral cover and fish biomass due to overfishing.
For effective management it is important to document current baseline conditions of reef habitats as well as monitor changes, especially in the face of events such as coral bleaching. Our current efforts are aimed at monitoring coral reefs around Kayankerni on the east coast of Sri Lanka. We are also monitoring reef fish populations on shipwrecks to document the importance of artificial habitats for reef fish. Future research plans include working with coastal communities to encourage sustainable fishing and community based resource management, and collaborating with the Global FinPrint Project to document the distribution of reef sharks in Sri Lanka using Baited Remote Underwater Video systems.