A sea change in attitude: The underwater makeover on paradise island

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Scientists and local communities are actively restoring coral in Mauritius.
Scientists and local communities are actively restoring coral in Mauritius.
Jacques Achille
  • Corals in Mauritius are being impacted by climate change, pollution and uncontrolled snorkelling.
  • Scientists and local communities have started coral farming to restore the 75% estimated to be destroyed.
  • Fishing communities and the tourism industry would be the first affected by the loss of coral.
  • For climate change news and analysis, go to News24 Climate Future.

Sitting on the white sand beach in the coastal village of Baie du Cap, south of Mauritius, Gérard Bernard's thoughts drift to the lives below the sea. 

"If there is no coral, there is no fish. No fish means no work, thus, no food and no money."

He repeats this sentence twice, the concern etched on his face. Having worked as a fisherman for 21 years, the disappearance of coral in his locality is causing the 57-year-old much anxiety.

"Because of this, we catch less fish, making our lives difficult. Fishermen have to go into deeper seas or find other activities to live. This is one of the reasons why youngsters are leaving the village", he explained. 

A report published by the Reef Conservation Society in Mauritius points to the key role that coral reefs play in ensuring healthy fish stocks around the Indian Ocean island.

"Coral reefs support 4 000 species of fish, including many commercial fishes, 700 species of coral, and thousands of other plants and animals. Coral reefs also protect shorelines from erosion and storm and wave damage," it said.

READ | Tunisia is restoring its coastlines, one beach at a time

Corals in Mauritius have been impacted by a "perfect storm" of climate change, pollution, the uncontrolled use of pesticides and herbicides, uncontrolled diving and snorkelling, and other human activities. The combined impact has devastated the marine ecosystem and accelerated beach erosion, affecting local livelihoods.

Climate change and the potential for "coral bleaching", when coral dies because of warmer than usual waters, is considered one of the greatest threats to coral reefs.

So now, local communities are fighting back, hoping to restore the country's shores to their former glory. Scientists and local communities have turned to coral farming to regrow some of the estimated 75% of the coral already destroyed.

Eco-Sud and Reef Conservation Society are two local societies presently engaged in a project to sensitise and train coastal populations, focusing on coral farming, preservation, and information dissemination.

In 2023 about 400 people across the island will be
In 2023 about 400 people across the island will be trained in coral farming.
bird Jacques Achille

"This work is of high importance for the environment, for the protection of the lagoon, to help fight coastal erosion and also for economic reasons", said Shashi Chumun, head of the scientific team at Eco-Sud.

"Fishermen communities and the tourism sector will be the first to be affected, which will directly impact the country's economy," he added.

Corals are grown at the Marine Park in Blue Bay using metal structures on the sea floor. Scientists, divers and fishermen collaborating in this activity use coral cuttings taken from other places to grow new ones.

"The more popular variety which we deal with gains 10 to 15 centimetres in one year," explained Chumun. "Another variety cultivated in the same zone grows by one to two centimetres per year. We have to place different varieties together so as to create a more diversified ecosystem."

Corals from underwater farms like Blue Bay are relocated after one year and planted in regions where the need for restoration is urgent.

According to United Nations Development Programme: 

In Mauritius and Seychelles, where tourism accounted for around 12% of GDP and above 39% of GDP respectively in 2019, coral reefs are real economic assets. Estimates indicate that coral reefs account for US$2.7 trillion per year in ecosystem service value. Annual benefits have been estimated at US$3 500 per square kilometre derived from fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection. However, this figure is likely to be underestimated, as coral reefs protect the real estate and livelihoods of around one billion people.

"During the last three decades, coral reefs have become the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. Globally, coral reefs have already lost 50% of their live hard coral cover between 1957 to 2007, and the need to protect them and preserve their services is greater than ever."

Chumun and her colleagues are determined to reverse the trend.

"We can reduce human pressure and cause less stress on corals. We can control pesticides and pollution. But there are natural factors over which we have no control, like global warming. That is why we have to take appropriate measures to replace the corals that have died," he said.

For fishermen like Bernard, sensitising tourists and community members about the importance of corals is an urgent priority.

"In places where corals are in good health, they are threatened by human activities. Replacing corals takes a lot of time and energy and while this is being done a whole ecosystem would have collapsed," said the fisherman.

But Bernard is not alone in this "urgent" campaign.

"On 24 November 2022, 44 members of the community were awarded certificates following training in various skills linked to the plantation and the management of coral nurseries," reads a statement from the Indian Ocean Commission.

This came barely months after another group of 43 received their certificates in May 2022 from Eco-Sud after coral restoration training.

In 2023, about 400 people across the island, including those in the hospitality industry, will be sensitised and trained by Eco-Sud and Reef Conservation on coral farming. 

The country's meteorological services recently announced that the cyclonic season, which lasts from December to March, will be quite intense in the Mauritian region. The rough seas are known to put pressure on the corals.

"We hope that the replanting work that is being carried out will not be useless because, since last year, we have noticed that cyclones are becoming more powerful and causing more harm to the corals," said Bernard.

"We are putting in efforts to change the situation. But still, there is no visibility about what our future will be like. I really hope that things get better, but up to now, we have only been facing a situation which is becoming worse."

The difficulties will not deter Bernard or those who have chosen to help with the restoration project, however. They are determined to ensure their efforts see results.

"This calls us to be more cautious and to put in more effort. We won't give up, and we need to find good reasons to keep hope," concluded the fisherman.

bird story agency

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