Conservation and Restoration of Marine and Coastal Ecosystems for Developing Livelihoods and Empowering Communities

The Asia-Pacific Region is considered a highly diverse region with a total of 17 out of 36 global biodiversity hotspots. In addition, the region supports the greatest marine diversity with a wide array of islands, long and highly diverse coral reefs, more than half of the world’s mangrove ecosystems, and the highest seagrass diversity. The region has experienced rapid economic growth as well as population growth, with a total population of 4.5 billion inhabitants, 60% of the world’s population. As a result, the existing natural ecosystems have been extensively transformed, which has a huge impact on the environment as well as the communities whose livelihoods depend on these ecosystems. Many people in the Asia-Pacific region rely on fishing, as the region supports nearly 28% of the aquatic and semi-aquatic species; however, nearly 37% of these species are threatened due to climate change and anthropogenic activities such as unsustainable fishing practices, pollution, and coastal development. Similarly, coral reefs in the region are under serious threat as well, mainly due to an increase in the spread of diseases and climate-related changes in ocean temperature and acidity parameters, which can lead to bleaching and die-off events. (IPBES, 2018).

Sri Lanka is a small Indian Ocean island country in the Asia-Pacific region. It covers an area of 65,610 km2 ( The National Red List, 2012) and has a coastline length of 1,340 km (Arachchige et al., 2017). The island is popular for its rich biodiversity owing to its wide range of (micro) climatic, topographic, and soil varieties. In fact, Sri Lanka has been designated as a biodiversity hotspot along with the Western Ghats of India. The country’s coastal ecosystems include large lagoons and estuaries, covering various climatic zones and geographical ranges and leading to high biodiversity. The country is home to over 21 species of mangroves, one third of global true mangrove species, and 208 species of hard corals of 71 genera representing 19 families ( The National Redlist, 2012). Coastal ecosystems in Sri Lanka provide several benefits: they act as excellent nursery areas for fisheries species by providing nutrients, shelter, and protection from predators ( Manson, 2005); they are major attractions for tourists due to the presence of corals and other ecosystems that allow for activities such as boat rides and nature trails; and they minimize the susceptibility of coastal communities to hazards by action as barriers and wavebreakers. However, climate change is making significant impact to the country’s ecosystems (Gunawardena & Najim, 2017) Further, as in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, Sri Lanka’s ecosystems are under threat from anthropogenic activities, illustrated for example by the two recent ship fire incidents that have caused major impacts to these ecosystems: the MT New Diamond and the MT X-Press Pearl.

The MT X-Press Pearl is a container ship carrying cargo that includes chemicals, cosmetics, nitric acid, and plastic pellets. It caught fire and sank in close proximity to the coast of Sri Lanka, causing a serious threat to marine life, ecosystems, and coastal areas. The debris of the ship together with plastic pellets is washed into the shores, chemicals have leaked into the water, and there is the potential of an oil spill event as well. Fishing has been prohibited throughout a 50-mile stripe, affecting the livelihoods of local fishing communities. The exact environmental impact has not been evaluated yet, however, there are predictions that the southern coasts as well as river systems could also be affected. This disaster is likely to impact the shorelines of countries like Indonesia, India, and Somalia, further highlighting that actions need to be taken to address such issues and impacts.

The livelihoods of people in Sri Lanka are highly dependent on marine and coastal ecosystems, with such ecosystems present in fourteen out of the country’s twenty-five districts. The sector generates direct and indirect employment for over 583,000 individuals and a further 2.7 million as a supporting workforce from the coastal communities (NARA, 2019; Oceanswell, 2021). Further, a gross national income of Rs. 113, 386 million was generated from the total fish production of 505, 830 Mt in 2019, with close to 80% generated from marine fisheries (Ministry of Fisheries, 2020; Central Bank of Sri Lanka, 2019; Oceanswell, 2021). Additionally, the country is a popular tourist destination with 1,913,702 tourists visiting the country accounting for an income of Rs. 646,362.3 million pre-COVID (SLTDA, 2019). More importantly, concepts such as ecotourism are getting popular worldwide as they can cause a positive impact on the environment and society as well as the economy of the country (Karunananda et al., 2020). Therefore, the promotion of ecotourism practices will enable the protection of these ecosystems simultaneously making a positive impact on the fisheries sector. More importantly, both these initiatives would enhance the livelihoods of the communities depending on them.

Total inhabitants of the coastal area account for up to 25% of the population of the whole country, and close to 70% of tourist hotels found on the island are located in the coastal zone (Koralagama, 2008). Therefore, proper awareness and capacity-building programs on ecotourism must be conducted for locals in these areas. These initiatives could be implemented by hotels which would also help to share knowledge on how local communities could play a role in these activities. Further, biodiversity assessments could be conducted together with local communities. This would provide valuable information on the species present in these areas and further support the implementation of ecotourism as well as share knowledge among the locals to help to protect these ecosystems. Finally, prioritizing women and youth in these areas could be vital as men focus on fishing as the main livelihood and additional income sources could be generated for families. The development of modules related to ecotourism could further enhance the knowledge and skills of these communities.

There are several laws, policies, and plans that have been formulated and implemented in Sri Lanka to protect coastal ecosystems such as the Coastal Conservation Act №57 of 1981, the Marine Pollution Prevention Act №59 of 1981, or the National Policy on Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Mangrove Ecosystems in Sri Lanka. In addition, coastal ecosystems sequester a significant amount of emissions and are recognized as important for climate change mitigation as well as adaptation, contributing to commitments under the coastal and marine, forestry, fisheries, and tourism sectors in the National Determined Contributions. The coastal and marine sector have also been included in Sri Lanka’s National Adaptation Plan for Climate Change Impacts, which coordinates adaptation planning and actions in the country. On the development side, the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development has a focus on coastal ecosystem protection under Goal 14 — ‘Life Below Water’ which focuses on conservation and sustainable use of oceans and marine resources. These laws, policies, and frameworks help protect these ecosystems and safeguard the livelihoods of people depending on them.

In conclusion, Sri Lanka has rich biodiversity and further supports a high marine biodiversity which provides livelihood opportunities for a large number of people. However, climate change and anthropogenic activities pose huge threats to these ecosystems. Therefore, the promotion of concepts such as ecotourism could support the livelihoods of these communities as well as make a positive impact on the environment. The protection of these ecosystems would further boost the fishing industry. Providing proper awareness, capacity building and inclusion of women and youth could further enhance these processes.

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Originally published at https://www.slycantrust.org.