Disappearing from view: The story of Monroe Island and why it matters to seafood
This is a delayed blog from the "FishAdapt -Global Conference on 'Climate Change Adaptation for Fisheries and Aquaculture" that took place in Bangkok from 8 to 10 August 2016. There were some thought-provoking matters that came from this conference, so I hope to fit a few of them into my schedule shortly.
I had the privilege of meeting Sri.K.N.Balagopal on a recent visit to Kerala. I was visiting the AwF project in Vakkom along with Dr. Dinesh Kaippilly, and we called on Sri Balagopal in his office in Pathanamthitta. He is a former Member of Parliament (Upper House) in the Government of India – he still maintains a very important role within politics in Kerala – and he had one big question that he hoped we could answer.
At that short meeting, Balagopal mentioned the issues with the sinking Munroe Island and Dr. Kaippilly suggested that he should raise the issue at the Bangkok Conference. This he did and while it was initially broached at the smaller Mangrove Session, he was allowed to address the larger conference audience and raise his concerns.
You could ask what this has to do with seafood, which is a fair response. However, when you learn that backwater fishing and shrimp farming are two of the major income sources for the local people of the island, you can start to understand the concerns.
Species caught from these backwaters such as freshwater prawns, lobsters, crabs, clams and oysters, along with important fishes such as pearl-spot, milk fish, mullets, tilapia, murrels etc., are all marketable, both locally and overseas. Due to fishing, a small boat-building industry had emerged to meet the needs of the island locals as well.
Some 25 years ago, shrimp farming also began. Over 70 percent of the Panchayath (controlled area) is the delta formed by the Kallada River, and the people mostly depended on prawn farming there – it was even named as “prawn village” of the state, such was its value. These shrimp ponds are now abandoned.
Other activities included agriculture – the growing of pepper, nutmeg and coconut. From the coconuts, three other industries were born namely coir, coconut oil and dried coconut. Additionally, there was duck, poultry and animal husbandry with tourism. It was a thriving island.
With the low-lying areas of the island now under the threat of submergence during high tides, over 300 families have departed because their houses have been flooded permanently. The saline water intrusion and reduced availability of drinking water plus severe drainage problems, including non-working toilets, have created major concerns.
Sinking islands are an issue mostly due to rising sea levels, which fall under climate change. However, what makes Munroe Island different is that it is not in the ocean with tides etc., it is in the backwaters where tides are generally not an issue.
The largest river island Majuli in Assam is submerging due to excessive sediment discharge caused by frequent low magnitude seismic disturbances. It has been reported that the surface area of the island has been reduced from 1,100 square kilometers to 352 square kilometers within a short span of time.
There is a history of islands sinking. Lohachara, which was finally lost in 2006, marks one such history. This was the first inhabited island to be submerged as a result of climate change and was located in India’s Sundarbans, where the rivers Brahmaputra and Ganges empty their contents into the Bay of Bengal. The island was once inhabited by as many as 10,000 people. As it gradually sunk into the sea, most of the residents fled to the neighboring Sagar Island, which is also under threat of sinking.
Most people would have heard about these other sinking islands:
- Solomon Islands, where the shape-shifting of 33 reef islands was reported between 1947 and 2014. It was found that five had been washed away completely and six more had been severely eroded.
- Kiribati, a country consisting of a chain of 33 atolls and islands with a maximum elevation of 266 feet above sea level, is reported to be sinking.
- The Maldives, like several other South Asian and Oceanic archipelagos, has a topography that suffers from a lethal combination of high surface erosion and rising sea levels. The former stems from the islands’ soft soils, but most scientists agree that the latter is a direct consequence of global warming.
- Other important islands sinking are Fiji, Micronesia, Palau, Republic of Cape Verde and Mauritius.
I was in the Maldives recently, and the emphasis is not to talk about the sinking – to that end, the government is building a bridge from Male Island to Airport Island.
Unfortunately, even if you can pinpoint the reasons for the sinking, the problems of what to do are still in doubt. There can be a multitude of reasons including climate change and rising sea levels; ground water extraction; mining and erosion; extraction of natural gases; movement of tectonic plates; dissolution of limestone; earthquakes; geological faulting; reduced silt accumulation in the island after the dam construction; isostatic subsidence or simple seasonal changes and associated effects.
Munroe Island was noticed to be sinking after a tsunami in 2004, which endangered the lives of the inhabitants. In fact, two specialists, Dr. Sainudeen Pattazhi and Shasthra Sahithya Parishad, did comment that the post-tsunami tectonic shift and dam construction across River Kallada may well have been the catalyst for the impact.
Since then, however, the National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS), Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment (KSCSTE) and the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) inferred that the flooding is caused by spring tide or subsidence (Spring Tide Theory).
Balagopal concluded: “We have to protect the island and its population – the need of the hour is to formulate location specific protocols for constructing buildings of high adaptability to the given situation. To ensure the livelihood of the local community adaptable methods of agriculture, aquaculture and allied activities have to be introduced. Forestation of different types of mangroves around the Island may well help to control further erosion and sinking. I need your help to get some global attention; ideally from FAO, NACA and other relevant organizations as any assistance are greatly appreciated.”