Getting intimate with life-giving oceans

It was in 1998 when the Centre for Marine Living Resources & Ecology (CMLRE) was established directly under Ministry of Earth Sciences (MOES) by upgrading the erstwhile Sagar Sampada Cell with exclusive facilities for implementing Marine Living Resources (MLR) Programme. Since then, CMLRE has been organizing, co-ordinating and promoting ocean development activities in the country which inter-alia include mapping of the living resources, preparing inventory of commercially exploitable living marine resources, their optimum utilization through ecosystem management and R&D in basic sciences on Marine Living Resources and Ecology.

Coming forward from that modest beginning about 20 years back, it became apparent that CMLRE has scaled a long journey towards progress and development when Dr. Harsh Vardhan, the Union Minister, in the presence of Dr. M. Sudhakar (Director CMLRE) and senior scientist N. Saravanane, stressed the need to develop CMLRE as a national centre to coordinate all spheres relating to the sector and to develop further the country’s ecosystem-based management strategies relating to the seas,during his visit to the CMLRE institute at Kakanad, Kochi.

Dr.M. Sudhakarwho has years of experience with the CMLRE says it is the only institute in India that is dealing with marine living resources in the deep waters. Elaborating on the major role played by CMLRE, he says: “CMLRE being the national centre established exclusively to address the marine living resources of our country has already made several focussed studies to assess the ecosystem processes, preserve and harness living resources. Our understanding has improved on these aspects to a large extent though still there are many unresolved issues, the prominent being (i) Is coastal pollution really significant and affecting marine living resources; (ii) what factors influence the marine fish distribution and their stocks; (iii) their breeding and recruitment grounds; (iv) effect of adverse environmental conditions like during El-Nino years of sea warming and ocean acidification; (v) wealth and records of bio-diversity in our Indian seas; (vi) unconventional fishery resources of deep-sea and its connection to coastal ecosystem, etc. Several concerted efforts have been planned based on our understanding of the seas, mainly by switching to the Ecosystem approach based studies. Towards this, in the first instance, CMLRE has taken-up two intensive projects during 2017-20: (a) Marine Ecosystem Dynamics of Eastern Arabian Sea (MEDAS), a mega multi-disciplinary ecosystem approach based time-series study involving multi-institutional expertise; and (b) Resource Exploration and Inventorization Scheme (REIS), both aimed to address major issues outlined above.”

CMLRE’s active engagements in deep seas can be understood by its various collaborations with several international activities viz. (i) Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS); (ii) Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR); (iii) Belmont Forum – Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services; (iv) Convention on Biological Diversity and (v) Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) – a new legal instrument proposed under United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). Through these collaborations and negotiations combined with in-house focused research, India stands to showcase its strengths in assessing and sustainably harvesting our marine biological resources for future needs.

“As part of its marine biodiversity program, we try to identify the various species that are available in the Indian waters and we are now working on deep sea fisheries and distant water fisheries,” tells Dr.Sudhakar adding that CMLRE has also identified 5 species of ornamental fishes, which are in great demand abroad, and has developed the technology to breed them and multiply them.

Exploration and exploitation of Antarctic marine resources too is of paramount importance, particularly when 26 countries including India, that too from far off countries like Norway, have taken quota allocation in the Antarctic region for research and exploration. While countries like Norway are looking at Antarctic for its food alternative requirements, Dr. Sudhakar says “we will have to see how viable it is for our country and its requirements.” However, it is clear that CMLRE will require a lot of support from Govt of India if it is to carry forth its deep sea mission and work on distant water fishing and deep water fishing. The CMLRE director agrees that he is getting the desired support from the Government.

Somasunder, working as Adviser with Ministry informs that the Government of India is now planning for sustainable development which mainly covers life below the water. The UN has lately come up with a charter specifying special goals for oceans and India is a signatory to it. In a conference held recently to address the sustainable development goals mainly conservation, preservation and sustainability of ocean resources particularly in terms of pollution and its impact, the UN put forth national as well as global indicators. These are as follows: (i) Prevent, reduce, minimize pollution; (ii) Preserve, conserve and sustainable use of marine resources; (iii) enhance the scientific capability; and, (iv) Implement the UN framed laws to harness resources in sustainable manner.

Entire activities that are conductedpresently can be divided into four broad segments: living resources, non-living resources, ocean observation and infrastructure expertise, says Dr.Sudhakar. As part of its work on non-living resources, water currents are being used to meet energy and fresh water requirements. There are three plants working which produce 1 lakh liters of fresh water every day. Work is going on to commence 4 more plants in 4 different islands of Lakshadweep. Besides, a plant is going to come up soon which will generate energy from water and the same energy will be used to operate a desalination plant.

Elaborating further on this, Dr. Purnima Jalihal, the Project Coordinator with National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) says: “We work with ocean energy forms which are waves, tidal (marine) current and thermal radiant. We have developed the first wave-powered navigational BUOY which will be useful for ports in our country. Also for the first time, we have developed a hydro-kinetic turbine which runs using the water velocity (marine current). Additionally, we have developed an Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) which uses the difference in surface temperature of water and the temperature at depth to generate power. Power is used to generate steam which is again condensed using colder water from the deep sea and thus absolutely fresh drinking water is obtained. This technology has gone a long way in solving the fresh water requirements in three islands in the Lakshadweep.”

Dr.Jalihal further informs that NIOT is working to scale up the technology for use on islands with larger population. “NIOT has already been able to successfully show offshore one million litre per day desalination plant. This plant, to be powered by OTEC will be put up at Kaviratti. A two million litre per day plant design is now ready at Tuticorn Thermal Power Plant station which we have scaled up for use by the industry on commercial basis.”

Oceans possess a lot of non-living resources as well, and technological advances have made it possible to harness these resources. Wakdiker, the Program Head with the Ministry informs that a great deal of activity is concentrated on deep sea resources in saline, international waters. India was the first country which has been awarded an area of one lakh sixty thousand square km in the international waters of Central Indian Ocean for exploration of polymetallic nodules. The nodules are potato-like structures which are found at the sea-bed, about 4 to 6 km below the water surface. Tells Wakdiker, “We had the contract with International Sea Bed Authority, which is a UN body, and which looks at the governance of such areas in the deep seas.” Incidentally, Dr.Sudhakar is an elected member of the Legal & Technical Commission for Internal Sea Bed Authority.

The polymetallic nodules, available on the sea-bed in the form of potato-like structures, contain copper, nickel and cobalt, apart from manganese. However, it has still not been possible to develop the technology to extract the minerals from these nodules. China and Korea, besides India, are the three countries in the process of developing the technology for extraction of metals. It is envisaged that India will be able to develop first pilot demonstration mining by 2021. In this regards, lot of efforts have been made by scientists from NIOT.

NIOT is also working on another program for exploration of polymetallic sulphides. Consequent to India’s explorations in the Indian Ocean, a contract has been awarded last year to National Centre for Antarctic & Ocean Research (NCAOR) to carry out further research in this field.

Informing further about NCAOR’s areas of work, Ravichandran says his organization is responsible for carrying forth scientific research in the Southern and Northern Poles besides the Central Pole, consisting of the Himalayan belt. Additionally, NCAOR is trying to study monsoon and also trying to map the entire Exclusive Economic Zone around India, a mammoth task considering the size of our country.

“In the polar areas, we are monitoring various parameters, looking at both and non-living,” says Ravichandran. NCAOR is running a station continuously, and analyses data collected from the stations in various poles in its labs on continuous basis. Elaborates Ravichandran, “We are the only organization working from North to South Poles. Scientists from all streams are working with us.” NCAOR also conducts various missions to the Antarctic on regular basis, in which scientists with expertise in various streams take part.

NIOT along with INCOIS is also doing its bit by providing advisory to the fishermen. Informing further on how it locates the potential fishing ground using the satellite data and tell the fishermen where to go for fishing, Shenoi, Director with INCOIS and NIOT says the data related to surface temperature and chlorophyll content in the ocean, till about 50 km from the shore are provided to the farmers which help them locate when and where to go in their search for more fishes. Today more than 4 lakh active fishermen out of the total estimated figure of about 10 lakh traditional fishermen in India use these services.

Elaborates Shenoi: “Fishermen wish to know how safe it is for them to go out fishing. We started providing them information called Ocean Page Forecast, where we provide forecast on wave, ocean current, ocean temperature and other related indices. Update is provided daily for the next 5 days. Normally small fishermen go out fishing for 2-3 days. These forecasts help them decide whether it is safe for them to go out.”

Third activity that is carried out is the Tsunami early warning system. Tells Shenoi: “We have the Indian Tsunami Early Warning System and UNESCO has designated us as regional Tsunami Service Provider. This means we have to provide Tsunami services for all the countries in the Indian Ocean whenever earthquake of magnitude more than 6.5 occurs. This information is provided to 22 other countries, besides India.”

In addition, now climate change issues are assuming greater importance. “This year we have started new activity for modelling from the point of view of climate change in relation to the Indian Ocean, which is warming up faster than all other oceans. We have constructed a global model and downsized it for the Indian Ocean region. Another new activity being taken up is to study Indian Ocean from the point of view of increased pollution levels as well as study the bio-geochemistry of water around India.”

All this would not have been possible without the high-tech Fishery Oceanography Research Vessel (FORV) SagarSampada with CMLRE besides two other smaller vessels. SagarSampada, now 33 years old, has served tirelessly to the needs of our country and continues to do the same even today, albeit with lesser efficiency. Dr.Sudhakar tells that “the process for the replacement of FORV has already been initiated and after lots of discussion and consultations, its technical specifications have been finalized. The new FORV with ultra-modern infrastructure will be the only deep-sea fishery vessel of the country after FORV SagarSampada and will hopefully serve as the backbone for further marine biological studies, very much on the lines of the services provided in the past by the now ageing SagarSampada.” Therefore, it is a matter of time when a state-of-the-art vessel will carry the Indian flag and torn past the waters of the Ocean in its attempt to get intimate with life-giving oceans.

Aziz Haider

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