To experience life beneath oceans, Chennaiites need not go to the Andaman islands or Maldives spending a bomb. Kovalam, which is about 30 km south of Chennai, is offering an experience of a lifetime, thanks to artificial reefs.
The reefs deployed in 2014 has brought back the lost glory of the place and is now beaming with colourful marine life, turning the tiny Kovalam village into scuba diving hot spot. And now, with Tamil Nadu experiencing increasing recurrence of extreme weather events and eroding beaches, the State government is planning to create a cluster of artificial reefs — which act as natural breakwaters by reducing wave energy — along the coast with more focus on fragile coastal stretches.
Venkat, a certified scuba diver working as an instructor with Barefoot Scuba in Kovalam, said artificial reefs did wonders in Kovalam. "Around 200-300 scuba divers come here annually and the peak season is between January and May, when the waters are clear and visibility is upto 20 meters. Snapers, Scads, perches, seerfish, seabass, croakers, trevalies and other perches have been seen. I even once spotted a whale shark."
However, he says the bottom trawlers continue to pose threat. "We regularly create awareness among the fishermen not to indulge in bottom trawling and use only hook and line method of fishing in the reef sites. But, sometimes, they do cast their vast nets damaging the soft corals that grow on the reefs. We continuously maintain them by removing the ghost nets."
Joe K Kizhakudan, officer-in-charge, Kovalam Field Laboratory of Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), told Express that the performance assessment of the reefs deployed are being done regularly and the results are very encouraging. "About Rs 25-lakh worth fish is found in each of these sites. In some places in Tamil Nadu, there are records of catches worth more than a crore per annum. Traditional fishers are saving lot of input costs in fuel and there is reduced wind sailing, scouting time and improved live bait collections."
Meanwhile, a total of Rs 28.50 crore has been sanctioned and two government orders have been issued to deploy the reefs inshore. The concept is nothing new for Tamil Nadu. Since 2006, Department of Fisheries has deployed artificial reefs in 35 coastal sites spread across eight districts and later in 2014, the International Funding for Agricultural Development (IFAD)-assisted Post Tsunami Sustainable Livelihoods Programme of Department of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, has deployed reefs in six coastal sites, both with technical assistance of CMFRI.
GS Sameeran, Director of Fisheries, told Express that government has approved two projects. "The government has accorded permission for installing artificial reefs in 30 locations all along the inshore waters of Chennai, Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur, which were affected in the 2017 oil spill. The restoration claim of Rs 10 crore received from insurers of shipping companies is being used for implementation of the project."
As per the GO, the insurers of two merchant ships BW Maple and MT Dawn Kancheepuram that collided off Ennore coast resulting in massive oil spill have deposited Rs 141 crore, including the restoration claim of Rs 10 crore, besides providing bank guarantee of Rs 84 crore.
"The compensation received has been disbursed to the affected fishermen of Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram. Further, as a measure to improve the coastal marine fishery resources through stock enhancement, it has been proposed to deploy artificial reefs in the coastal villages of these three districts," K Gopal, Principal Secretary, Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries, said in the GO.
Sameeran said artificial reefs, if properly deployed, are known to act as perfect habitat for marine life, which helps in augmenting the productivity of the marine ecosystem. "It increases the available area for food, shelter and breeding activities for fish. It also enhances fish production through increased breeding activity and increases survival of young ones. Moreover, it acts as a natural barrier against erosion and also prevent bottom trawling operations by mechanised boats."
He said CMFRI has been entrusted with site selection and has already begun the groundwork. Around 150 to 200 modules will be used in each site. "Another project costing Rs 18.50 crore has been given to us by Revenue and Disaster Management Department to deploy reefs in Gaja cyclone-affected districts like Cuddalore and Nagapattinam."
Kizhakudan said the IFAD has recently entered into an MoU with CMFRI for another six sites in 2019 in the six districts of Thanjavur, Tirunelveli, Tuticorin, Ramnad, Pudukkottai and Thiruvarur.
"Altogether 53 sites have been completed so far and another 6 sites will be done in 2019. The agency has also approached us for another 42 sites in the ongoing year."