India Needs A Coastal Observing System That Covers Everything From Microbes To Physics To Fisheries

22/02/2017 9:57 AM IST | Updated 28/02/2017 9:23 AM IST
Babu Babu / Reuters

India has a coastline of nearly 8000km, with rich fisheries grounds, and recreational and ecotourism potential that remains to be fully exploited. The coastal vulnerabilities range from floods and storm surges on the west coast to cyclones and inundation on the eastern seaboard. Protecting the valuable coastlines and coastal resources requires a robust coastal forecast system, supported by an integrated coastal observing system.

Many opportunities and challenges remain for establishing an extensive coastal observing system to meet India's coastal forecast needs.

Dr. A. Narendra Nath recognised the need for coastal forecasts for fisheries and initiated Potential Fishing Zone (PFZ) predictions in the 1990s. By the end of that decade, the Department of Ocean Development which morphed into the Ministry of Earth Science, recognised the significance of PFZ forecasts and established the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) in Hyderabad. Today, INCOIS routinely issues operational ocean forecasts for waves, swells, tides, ocean spill trajectories, and of course the PFZ. Multiple ocean models have been established with a goal of developing mechanistic models for fisheries and other ecological and oceanographic products of interest for various sectors of importance for the country.

While a robust observing system exists for the northern Indian Ocean—where India is a partner with the international Indian Ocean Observing System—many opportunities and challenges remain for establishing an extensive coastal observing system to meet India's coastal forecast needs. Total Indian exports from fisheries now run into many billion dollars; more importantly, due to the burgeoning middle and upper-middle class, the domestic demand for fish is increasing rapidly. Needless to say that the number of domestic and international visitors to the various beaches of the country also continue to grow each year. Sustaining and growing these valuable economic activities depends on establishing a sustained observational forecast system for the entire coastline.

Further development and sustainable exploitation of fisheries and aquaculture can only be accomplished by closely tracking the natural climate variability in the coastal regions and the impacts of human activities and global warming. It is unclear what the coastal ecological impacts of El Niño are (even though El Niño's impacts on the summer monsoon remain the largest source of monsoon predictability). However, considering that nearly 50% of the monsoon droughts are not explained by El Niño, we can infer that much of the coastal variability in circulation, waves, and fisheries also remain unexplained in terms of their main drivers and thus the sources of their predictability. These issues pose a unique challenge for the development of skilful coastal forecasts. But these are also great opportunities for enhancing the educational and research agenda at various institutions, and for promoting science and technology to develop observational systems and public-private partnerships to exploit economic opportunities in coastal transportation, ecotourism, offshore wind and wave energy, aquaculture, aquaria, underwater ocean observatories, etc.

Sustaining and growing valuable economic activities depends on establishing a sustained observational forecast system for the entire coastline.

Another area that remains largely unexplored is the impact of coastal waters on human health via direct exposure and from consumption of seafood. Harmful algal blooms (HABs) and human pathogens such as Vibrio cholerae (which causes cholera) are obviously a clear and present danger. And yet, there isn't sufficient data to advance process and predictive understanding to build forecast models. Many attempts have been made to use existing satellite data to build such models. It is imperative for India to build a massive database of coastal pathogens and HABs to understand the environmental conditions that drive their bloom-and-bust cycles, and to ascertain whether the rapid Indian Ocean warming is leading to an increase in the number or toxicity of these ecosystems. It is well known that fish tend to bioaccumulate these toxins and can induce various neurological and gastroenteritic diseases in humans. Increasing coastal populations and various land use practices such as deforestation, agriculture and urbanisation tend to increase nutrient loadings in the streams and groundwater discharging into coastal waters, which can further exacerbate HABs and pathogens.

Existing national institutions such as the National Institute of Oceanography and the National Institute of Ocean Technology are actively involved in various observational, modelling, research and technology development activities. A rapid expansion of their geographical reach and technology deployment is needed to accelerate the modelling and forecast efforts at INCOIS. The observational systems must cover the range from microbes to humans and physics to fisheries. All available platforms such as nanotechnology, drones, robots, and various autonomous observing systems, including satellites, must cover the gamut of observational needs from genetic to molecular to monsoon scales.

India is unique in terms of the intimate interactions between the ocean, atmosphere and land that determine its weather and climate, with humans adding some garam masala to further complicate matters. Considering the role of coastal resources in terms of natural defence against storms and cyclones and the importance of the coastal bounty for the nation's food security and tourism, as well as contribution to GDP via fisheries exports, the need for an integrated coastal observing system for sustainable management of the vast coastline can hardly be overemphasised.

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