Coral reefs-Sri Lanka

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Coral Reefs and alternative income generation: diversifying livelihoods options for climate change resiliency

Kalpitya peninsula, located on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka in the Puttalam district, houses a unique coastal ecosystem and the largest coral reef in the southern Gulf of Mannar. The peninsula is approximately 100 kilometers in length and and borders the Puttalam lagoon on the western side, the second largest lagoon in Sri Lanka.  This dynamic and rich ecosystem has provided fisheries resources for countless generations of fishermen, who temporarily or permanently inhabit several islands near the mouth of the lagoon. There is no question that fishing is the most important commercial activity in the area and local people are highly dependent on the fisheries found there within. Yet with coral reefs fast becoming one of the most threatened ecosystems due to climate change, an already stressed ecosystem is facing further pressures due to fishing in its sensitive waters, which lie between two and eight kilometers off the shoreline. This is why CREE and local partners are working hard to diversify income streams for local people to take pressure off reef resources. We see this as very important for not only the current generation of fishermen, but for the future generations to come.



Bar Reef houses extensive coral reef habitat from sandy areas to sandstone platform reefs. The reef system has high endemic biodiversity, including cetaceans such as dolphins.  Before the 1998 mass bleaching event, over 200 species of fish belonging to 95 genera were recorded, as well as over 120 species of coral. Closer to the beach and flowing into the interior areas, one finds a large tract of sand dunes followed by other coastal habitats such as mangroves and sea grass beds around the lagoon and small islands in the vicinity of Bar Reef.  Considering the great importance of this reef, the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWLC) declared a 306.7 kilometer area a marine sanctuary in 1992.


The coastal communities of Kandakuliya, Kudawa, Anawasala Uchhimunai, Bathalagunduwa, and Dutch Bay villages derive their livelihoods predominately from fishing in the Bar Reef area. Although the area has been declared a marine sanctuary, resource extraction intensity has actually increased. From this increased rate of resource extraction, changes are now being seen in the ecological systems of Bar Reef. A combination of unsustainable fishing methods, over-fishing, lack of enforcement, and low levels of environmental awareness on the basic ecology and value of the reef and related habitats have all contributed to constant and increasing threats for species in the Bar Reef area. Related to this, as resource depletion continues to worsen, poverty levels in villages are also increasing. This reflects the intimate relationship between resource rich areas like coral reefs and the long-term economic stability of coral dependent communities. Indeed, the average income of coastal fisher households places them below the poverty line in Sri Lanka.

Project Objectives

Though there have been many efforts geared towards natural resource management in the past, the degree of pressure on the Bar Reef ecosystem has not been reduced as expected.  This is mainly due to the high dependency of local communities on coral reef resources and the relative poverty challenges local people are facing. Considering the complex social and economic issues facing the Bar Reef communities, the Marine and Coastal Resources Foundation (MCRF), together with the Center for Rural Empowerment and the Environment, have decided to work towards reducing direct dependency on reef resources in the sanctuary by improving the overall well-being of community members. This will be accomplished by diversification and enhancement of coastal communities’ livelihoods, while at the same time enhancing their understanding and appreciation of their natural environment and the limits of the ecosystem. The form this diversification takes was determined by the community and is a multi-pronged approach as follows:

  • Seaweed farming: this is an alternative livelihood in the communities than can directly increase income. Seaweed farming was initiated in the near-shore coastal area and in the lagoon closest to the Bar Reef sanctuary. Before promoting seaweed farming, initial pilot studies were conducted to assess its viability. These studies showed promising results. Since there is already a market demand for seaweed in these areas, farming of this resources is anticipated to increase incomes from resources not linked to the coral reef.
  • Tilapia farming: from positive results from a test study with one family in the village, tilapia farming has been identified by community members as a conduit to alleviate poverty in the area and provide yet another alternative source of income. This project will provide fingerlings to the pilot family, as well as assistance to other interested families. Besides project assistance in the form of finances and capacity-building, fisher households have offered to donate their labor and time to help get this project underway.
  • Ornamental fish farming: this project component will focus on the poorest communities in the area and its goal is also to enhance income at the village level. The beneficiaries will be selected from those who received training from the National Aquaculture Development Authority on ornamental fish farming. Since there is demand for ornamental fish for export, regular income for beneficiaries of this project is expected.
  • Home garden improvement: to reduce household demand from coral reef products in communities, home garden improvement has been introduced. Currently 30 fisher households are engaged in this activity and we are planning to add 10 more with this project. Women in the households have historically spent time on this activity and grow vegetables and fruit for household consumption.  This activity we see as conducive toward easing pressure on the reef as part of an integrated strategy.
  • Public education and awareness: to change behaviors which have a negative effect on the coral reef ecosystem, it is necessary to change local knowledge of the ecology of the coral reef ecosystem in general and the Bar Reef system in particular. To this end, an awareness program has been designed under the theme ‘Environment and Livelihoods’. In accordance with this program, target groups for education include fisher folk from the Bar Reef and nearby areas, divers for ornamental fish, sea cucumber and chank collectors, school children, and even government and local authorities. It is necessary to take a wide and varied approach in all environmental education efforts and to tailor presentations and local outreach to these audiences.

Climate change will no doubt have a serious effect on the coral reef ecosystem in Bar Reef. This can be further exacerbated by pressure from human communities dependent on the area and living adjacent to the ecosystem. With CREE’s practical approach to community engagement and education of the community by local leaders, we believe that the next generation of reef resource users will be ‘Climate-Ready Communities’ capable of striking a more sustainable balance between coral reef use and protection.

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