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6 A Brief Resume of Research and Understanding of the Reef Corals and Coral Reefs around India by C.S. Gopinadha Pillai1

1 Formerly of CMFRI Cochin. Present Address: Sreesailam Pramadom, Mallasary, R.O Puthanamthitta. Kerala, Pin 689 646 Tel: 0473 325165


The researches on the various aspects of corals, and coral reefs of the seas around India, including the oceanic atolls and continental islands have a span of more than a century. However it is not the intention here to present an exaustive review of all those work and the available results obtained by Indian and foreign investigators; but only a half hearted attempt to elucidate some of the aspects as gleaned from literature and personal observation of the author.

More than a hundred scientific reports are available in various Indian and foreign publications on the reef corals and coral reefs of India not to speak of the large number of articles available in literature on the living reef associated resources of our waters. Majority of them are from the last 30 years. The section on references in this communication is only selective and many references cited in the text are not carried over to the reference section to save space.

Reef morphology and ecology

Early reports on the reefs of south India (Walther,1892 with comments by Pillai, 1994; Foote,1883 and Thurston.1888) Lakshadweep (Gardiner, 1903-06) and from Andaman and Nicobar (Sewell, 1922) are of purely qualitative description. There was a long gap on reef research from this area since then either due to lack of interest or due to various difficulties confronted on working in reefs, for reefs as Foote said are mostly "un-get-at-able". The situation changed in the latter half of this century and some work was initiated at the C.M.F.R. Institute, Mandapam Camp. The 1st International Symposium on corals and reefs organised by the Marine biological association of India at Mandapam Camp in January 1969 in fact gave a phillip to reef studies and many Indian and foreign works paid considerable interest on our reefs and reef resources.

The Extent of The reefs

All the four major types of reefs occur in our waters. Fringing reefs are found in (or were found) in Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay. Patchy coral growths of wave cut platforms on subsided land are seen along the Saurastra coast in Gulf of Kutch. Some patchy outcrops are also present near Vizhinjam and Enayam along the west coast of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Deep water coral formations are reported from the Maharashtra and Karnataka coast. Typical atoll formations are in Laksadweep. Fringing and Barrier formations are in Andamans and Nicobar Islands. Stoddart and Fosberg (1972) opined that the reef formations from Rameswaram to Tuticorin should be called the Mannar barrier.

But for the early surveys and charting of the reefs by the British Admirality and later by the survey of India the only existing attempt to estimate the extent of our reefs by remote sensing method seems to be that of Beldev Sahi (1994) contained in a report submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests Govt. of India. Shai determined the reef areas of Lakshadweep. A & Nicobar Islands, Gulf of Kutch and Gulf of Mannar totalling to 1166.6 sq km, the maximum area being in A & Nicobar Islands (813.2 sq. km).

Physiography and zonation studies

Recent physiographic and zoning pattern studies on our reefs are those of Pillai (1971, 1972 and 1977) from Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay; Mergner and Scheer (1974) from S. India; Pillai et al (1979) and Patel (1979) from Gulf of Kutch; Pillai (1971) from Minicoy; Reddiah (1977), Pillai (1983) and Mukerjee (1984, 1985) from Andamans all pertain to shallow-water environs. Except for some transect and quadrat method of estimation from CMFRI no quantitative assessment on the reef resources are made.

Taxonomy and Faunal Diversity of Reef Corals

Early works on the taxonomy of Scleractinia from the Indian waters are those of Alcock (1892), Gardiner (1903-06), Brook (1893) Bernard (1905), Matthai (1914, 1928) and Gravely (1927), wherein corals from the deep waters of India, Rameswaram. Lakshadweep and Andamans were described. However, intensive effort to study the reef corals of India was started only in the early sixties from C.M.F.R Institute. In the last thirty years we have gained reasonable information on the species diversity and composition of the coral fauna of India. Some of the major studies in the recent past are those of Pillai (1972), Scheer and Pillai (1974) Pillai (1983), Pillai (1986) Pillai and Patel (1988), Pillai and Jasmine (1989) and Pillai and Jasmine (1966). The following is a tentative list of genera and species of scleractinia hitherto recorded from this area.







Pillai and Jasmine 1989

Gulf of Kutch



Pillai and Patel 1988

Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay



Pillai 1986

A& Nicobar



Pillai 1983

W. Coast of Kerala & T. Nadu



Pillai and Jasmine 1996

Total for India



However very recent studies from Lakshadweep by the research scholars of CMFRI as well as the one by Rodrigues have indicated the existence of a few more species. Therefore the number of species mentioned above from Lakshadweep is subject to revision. Local and regional variation in species composition, was elucidated by Pillai in a series papers in the last twenty five years.

Assessment of Reef Associated Living Resources other than Corals

Fairly good account of the reef associated living resources such as other coelenterates, polychaetes, molluscs crustaceans echinoderms and marine algae are available in literature particularly in the various publications from CMFR Institute and NIO Goa. Quantitative estimation is still wanting in many cases. The icthyofauna is well documented particularly from Lakshadweep accounting to nearly 600 species (Jones and Kumaran, 1980). The ecology and biology of many species of reef fishes were studied by Pillai and Colleagues from Lakshadweep. A & Nicobar islands also is reported to harbor nearly 600 species of fishes including both resident and migrant. A comprehensive list of marine fauna from our reef, as is known to date is given by Bakus (1994).

Despite these realistic statistical and quantitative estimation of the standing and exploitable stock is yet to be made

Estimation of Primary Production

Some of the primary production determination by flow-respirometry are those of Nair and Pillai (1972) from G. Mannar, Lakshadweep and Andamans. Qasim et al (1972), from Lakshadweep and Gulf of Mannar and Mukerjee (1984, 1985) from South Andamans. The result indicated that the continental island reefs as well as those along the mainland coast are heteroprophic while the atoll reefs are autotrophic. However, the data on primary production as summarised in Bakus (1994) seems to have little relevance in the present situation. The reason being the vast deterioration of reefs at the original sites of experiments. Reinvestigation will yield data on loss of efficiency due to mass mortality to corals and associated organisms on our reefs.

Geology and geomorphology

The Indian reefs, particularly the surface features of our atolls are believed to have reached the present form in the Holocene period. Gardiner made notes on the formation and geologic history of Lakshadweep in 1903. Corals are ideal tools in the determination of geological changes. Local tectonic changes and sea level variations along the mainland coast of India and Lakshadweep were interpreted in the past by the age determination of coral samples from S. India, Gulf of Kutch and Lakshadweep (Stoddart and Pillai 1972; Gupta. 1972) and also from Kochi by Pillai et al MS). Mallik (1979, 1985) studied the geology and sedimentology of Lakashadeep.

Natural and anthropogenic interference on reefs

The coral reefs, and their living resources are facing deterioration all over the world, probably due to the fact, that they have a very long survival history and on their way to extinction slowly. However, present day ecological and natural interference's and human involvement on reef ecosystem hasten their dwindling. Indian reefs are no exception and several factors have affected them.

Impact of natural factors on Indian reefs are comparatively insignificant compared to human interference. Pests and predators as well as pathological conditions are seldom reported. A notable incidence of Acanthaster planci infestation was reported from the Wandoor area in 1990 (James et al, 1990). White Band Disease (WBD), is reported from Andamans and Lakshadweep especially on branching Acropora spp.

Excessive rain, cyclones and fresh water influx rarely kill coral from our area, though elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific these types of calamities are a major factor. A major case of crude oil spill, occurred at Kiltan Atoll in northern Lakshadweep in 1974, though the mortality to corals on reef was negligible. Washing off tarballs into the lagoon beaches is a common occurrence in many atolls. A major deleterious natural factor that affect coral growth in our waters is siltation due to sea erosion as is seen in Lakshadweep Andamans and Gulf of Kutch.

The human interference is very significant. Indiscriminate overexploitation of corals and reef associated organisms from our reefs in the last few decades have effected immense damage to this tropical marine ecosystem. These have been reported in a series of recent scientific publications (Pillai. 1975, 1985, 1996, Pillai and Madan Mohan, 1986, Pillai and Jasmine. I996, Salm, 1981. Rashid, 1988, Patel. 1988 and Dorairaj et al. review of the results are presented by Wells (1988). Quarrying of corals for industrial purposes from G. Mannar and P. Bay resulted in the total destruction of fringing reefs. Pillai 1973) estimated that about 250 M3 of reef was daily removed from G. Mannar during sixties and seventies. Ramanujam estimated that on an average 80,000 t. of corals were removed from the vicinity of Tuticorin in eighties. A well developed fringing reef that existed in Piroton Island iii Gulf of Kutch was found quarried during 1985. It is sad to note that even Krusudai Island the one time paradise of marine biologists was destroyed of her fauna and flora beyond recovery especially after the declaration of the Marine Park in G. Mannar. Over and indiscriminate exploitation of not only corals but other living resources associated with reefs is also rampant, including molluscs, echinoderms goreonids, marine algae and live bait fishes.

Yet another damaging factor was dredging of the lagoon in almost all islands in Lakshadeep for post independent developmental activities. Consequent to the direct and indirect effect in many sites luxuriant growth of corals and other fauna in the lagoon are no more in existence. Dredging has also enhanced sea erosion and subsequent sediment deposition on the lagoon shoals and reef flats. Destruction to natural atoll vegetation in Lakshadweep due to intensive agricultural operation and introduction of cattle and sheep beyond the carrying capacity is all the more notable.

Who is to be blamed?

Relegating the responsibility for the destruction of our valuable coral reefs to any single individual or institution is incorrect. It is apparent that the coastal people, islanders, industrialists, bureaucrats, and perhaps the scientific community are collectively responsible. Passionate appeals from scientists, conservationists and the press were heard in scientific meetings and conferences then and there to halt the criminal destruction But unfortunately all these remained a cry in the wilderness to the date.

Why we speak of reef conservation

The value of coral reefs, both for the biosphere and human species is well established. Reefs are centres of high biological productivity, sites of Co2 sink, ecosystem of very high biodiversity, shore line protectors, source of huge deposit of CaCo3, centres of scientific research; additionally they provide us with many natural raw material for pharmacological products or life-saving drugs. The value of coral reefs as tourist spots are also all the more important. However, it seems, that we in this country, except for overexploiting the lime stones and resources they harbour, made very little efforts to utilise them in the correct perspective. We are yet to recognise the value of coral reefs for our very existence, especially the coastal people. From a fisheries point of view - the value of reefs - one cannot underestimate.

Action on Reef Conservation in India - Achievement and Audit

There is a global awareness, on the need of protection and conservation of reefs and many national and international organisations are on the job. As already stated, in our country also the need is felt at certain quarters for quite sometime. Infact we gave the world countries a fillip in reef studies and reef conservation by way of organising the First international Symposium on corals in 1969. In the last 25 years we have had several meetings and workshop on coral reef conservation and management. The following are some them.

1. 1st Inter, nat. Symp. on corals and coral reefs. Mandapam Camp (Mar. biol. Ass. India).

2. Seminar on world nature conservation. BNH Society Bombay, 1983.

3. SYMP. on Endangered Marine animals and Marine Parks. Mar.biol. Ass, India, Cochin, 1983.

4. Work shop on Lakshadweep. RRI Trivandrum. 1987

5. Workshop on coastal zone of Tamil Nadu. Anna Univ. Chennai 1989

6. Workshop on taxonomy of corals and crustaceans. NIO Goa 1994

7. National conference on coastal zone management. Committee on S & T Kerala and Earth Science, Cochin,1889

8. Workshop on a scientific data base in Lakshadweep. Geological survey of India.. Cochin 1995.

9. Workshop on coral reef management. Kamaraj College Tuticorin Tamil Nadu,1996.

10. Workshop on Indian Ocean Marine conservation. IOMAC. Mombassa, Kenya, 1995.

These workshops, symposia and seminars have discussed the problems of reef in India and have made several recommendation for their conservation and management. True most of them remain in literature only.

In addition, we in India have formulated several national and state level committees with a view to protecting our reefs

1. National committee on wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs Ministry of Environment and Forests. New Delhi.

2. National committee on coral reefs (Defunct?)

3. Marine Park evaluation committee. Ministry of E & F New Delhi No sitting seems to have taken place.

4. Lakshadweep S.T Committee.

5. Technical Advisory committee for critical habitats. D.O.D, New Delhi. 1997. Others if any, is not known to the author.

What we have achieved

As a developing nation, it is heartening that our scientists and administrators, so also the peoples representatives, are aware of the need for nature conservation. We are certainly familiar with global concepts on conservation, catchwords and many ACRONYMS, such as, Sustainable Development of Bruntland, Judicious exploitation, over exploitation, habitat preservation and species protection, endangered and threatened habitat and species, biosphere reserves and Marine parks, CITES, GATT, eco-development, sea ranching, eco-friendly approach for development, eco-tourism, critical habitats, core area and zonation traditional rights, alternate employment and Holistic approach for nature conservation. There we seems to stand, as far as coral reef ecosystems are concerned.

Scientific output and infrastructure

The reef research so far done has helped to have some understanding, of the, present status, especially the taxonomy of corals and interference's on reefs. The data thus gained is available in several papers and reviews as listed in the reference. These, might help us to identify specific problems and draw action plan for the management and conservation of the coral reefs.


Ideological conflicts between conservation and developmental strategies looms large, we have to protect the traditional rights of reef users and if necessary alternate employment or resource have to be provided to them. Though we speak of peoples participation in conservation we are yet to make awareness among the public. We are yet to evolve a data based, practical action plan in this regard. Very little physical effort is applied for eco-development. Prevention of injudicious exploitation has not been effected. Remaking a coral reef may be beyond the capacity of man despite all his scientific breakthrough and technical achievements. But once we take our hands off from the reef, they may still take care of themselves and survive for some time.

Infrastructure for reef research is still limited. A nodal institution or a Research laboratory is yet to take shape. Trained personal are wanting. Capacity building may be our prime objective. We are yet to declare the coral reefs as national heritage and yet to set an authority to protect them.

Action effected:

Collection of corals from Lakshadweep and Gulf of Mannar and Andamans are banned by law except for genuine scientific purpose. But clandestine exploitation is still going on. We have declared at least three marine Parks in coral growing areas viz. Wandoor in S. Andamans, Gulf of Kutch and Gulf of Mannar. The management is entrusted with the forest authorities Trained marine biologist are not yet incorporated.

Selected References

Alagarswamy, K (Ed) 1983-Mariculture potential of A& Nicobar Islands Bull. cent-Mar Fish. Res. Institute No.34.

Bakus. G.J. (1994) Coral reef ecosystems Oxford and IBH publishing Co. New Delhi, ppl-232.

C.M.F.R Institute. 1986. Mar. Fish. Infor. ser. T&E. No. 68.

Dorairaj, K et al 1989.Corals of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Cent. Agri. Res. Inst. Portblair pp.1-29.

Kenchington r.a and Hudson, e.t. 1988. Coral reef management hand Book, UNESCO, Paris Paris - PP. 1-321.

Menon, N.G and G.S.G. Pillai (Eds) 1996. Marine biodiversity conservation and Management, C.M.F.R. I Kochi. ppl-2@4.

Mukundan. C and G.S.G. Pillai (Eds)1972. Proc. symp. coral and coral reefs. Mar. biol ass. India. pp. 1-587.

Pillai, C.S.G. T975.An assessment of the effect of environt and human interferences on the Coral reefs of G. Mannar and P. Bay. Seafood Export J-7(12): 1-13.

Pillai, G.S.G. 1986. Recent corals from the southeast coast of India. Recent advances in Marine biology, Today and tomorrow pub. N. Delhi: 107-201

Pillai, G.S.G and S. JASMINE 1996.Seleractinian corals of the erstwhile Travancore coast. J. mar. biol. Ass. India 37(1 &2): 109-125.

Salm, R.V. 1981.Coastal resources of Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. IUCN. Gland. Pp 1-260

Salm, R.V. 1984.Marine and coastal protected areas A guide for planners and managers, IUCN Gland: PP 1-302.

Scheer G and G.S.G. Pillai.1974. Report on a collection of scleractinia from A & Nicobar Island. Zoologica Stutt. No. 122: 1-75.

Silas, E.G (.Lds). 1988. Proc. Symp. Endagered Marine animals and Marine Parks. Mar. biol. Ass. India

Susheelan, C. (Ed) 1989. Marine Living resources of the union Territory of Lakshadweep. Bull.cent Mar. Fish. Res. Institute. No.43: 1-256

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