Assessment of Buonavista Reef
and Recommendations

Thomas J. Goreau, Ph.D.
President, Global Coral Reef Alliance
March 27 1998
Colombo, Sri Lanka

Heavy mining and deteriorating water quality now limit healthy coral reef to only very small pockets along the southwestern coast. Only two good patches of reef now remain, at Hikkaduwa and at Buona Vista. Both are so small, around 100 metres long, that each could be totally destroyed by a single large ship grounding or oil spill. While fairly diverse coral communities are found in deeper waters around 20 miles offshore, according to Dr. Arjan Rajasuriya of the National Aquatic Resources Agency, the corals form communities of isolated corals which do not build massive reef frameworks. Coral reef structures dominated by living corals are the only reef communities capable of protecting the coast against waves, and are found only in very restricted areas of the Sri Lanka coast where water quality is suitable. These tiny areas are invaluable national natural resources needing strong management and protection for two reasons:

1)Coral reefs contain the greatest part of Sri Lanka’s marine biological diversity. More species of fish have been found at Buona Vista than anywhere else in Sri Lanka, according to studies carried out by Prasanna Weerakkody and Laksiri Karunaratne, but many species have already been wiped out by uncontrolled collecting for the aquarium fish trade. A rapid survey recently carried out at Buona Vista by Dr. John Veron, the world’s top expert on coral taxonomy, found at least two coral species new to science, and over half a dozen more which could not be clearly identified, which could also be new species. Studies being carried out by Dr. S. U. K. Ekaratne of the University of Colombo are revealing large numbers of marine organisms previously unknown in Sri Lanka. Such richness of species is astonishing for so small a reef area.

2)Coral reefs are Sri Lanka’s major resource for marine eco-tourism. Increasing numbers of tourists want to see beautiful natural surroundings, and their preservation will enhance the range of options for tourists and the type and number of tourists who could be attracted, according to Asoka Perera, Deputy Director of Tourism. Sri Lanka has become internationally renowned for its coral reefs thanks to the writings of Arthur C. Clarke, but sadly most of these are either destroyed, degraded, or are now inaccessible due to security reasons (such as the Bar Reef and the reefs of the northeast coast). Only the reefs at Hikkaduwa and Buona Vista now have the potential to be ecotourism attractions. While the former is protected by the Wildlife Department, the latter is entirely unprotected. Both are subject to heavy utilization and the corals are being threatened by multiplicity of factors including physical damage by trampling, anchors, boat groundings, and storms, by excessive amounts of sediment which block light and smother corals, overgrowth by weedy algae and other marine organisms, sewage pollution, oil pollution, marine diseases, and global warming.

Both reefs still have a surprisingly rich amount of coverage by healthy corals and need to be placed under management which includes regulation of threats to the reefs from land-based sources of pollution such as sediments and sewage, as well as regulation of in-water activities such as oil discharges, anchoring, trampling, and boat groundings. Comprehensive protection and management plans need to be drawn up, funded, and implemented for both areas. In the case of Buona Vista the management unit should include Mount Rumassala and the beaches and Cheap Oakleys coral reefs on the other side of the mountain at Unawatuna. Due to the severity of current impacts from heavy human use of both areas, management needs to be brought into operation with the greatest possible urgency if these reefs are to remain viable resources for the future. Partnership between government agencies, non-governmental organizations, community groups, and the private sector will be needed.

The Buona Vista reef has the highest documented diversity of fish and corals in Sri Lanka, however the reef is very small, intensively used by local bathers and by fishermen, and is not under effective management. The coral reefs are found on a series of four reefs which extend from the shore outward to about 15 feet depth, separated by sand channels. The habitat and species have been described in detail in an excellent study by Prasanna Weerakkody and Laksiri Karunaratne of the Nature Conservation Group.

Coral growth in shallow water is extremely lush and varied, with large patches of Acropora, Pocillopora, Montipora, Synarea, and Porites forming almost complete live coral cover, interspersed with smaller isolated corals of many other types. In the deeper areas there is considerable sediment damage. Although fish populations are very varied, their populations were fairly small. The reef is intensively used by fishermen collecting aquarium fish for export, and they have entirely wiped out many of the rarer and more beautiful species. Because of heavy fishing pressure the fish are very fearful, fleeing from swimmers as soon as they see them, the opposite behavior to what is seen at Hikkaduwa. Considerable portions of the reef, especially on the deeper edge, have been dynamited by fishermen, and areas which were formerly lush coral are now barren piles of flattened rubble.

The reefs at Buona Vista lie at the base of Mount Rumassala, an area of ancient legendary significance. According to the Ramayana, after Sita, the wife of the god Rama, was captured by Ravana, the demon king of Sri Lanka, Rama’s assistants tried to rescue her, but were immobilized by magic. Hanuman, the monkey god, flew to the Himalayas to bring back sacred herbs to restore them, flying back with a large chunk of the Himalayas. Pieces of the mountains fell off, forming a chain of mountains in India and Sri Lanka, of which Rumassala is the last.

Although the mountain provides a dramatic and unique view of the sea and Galle harbor, and is an officially designated forest reserve, the construction of a cement plant in the river plain just to its north resulted in the removal of the population which lived there, who were forced onto the forested mountain. Almost all the trees were then cut for firewood, giving a blighted and deforested aspect to what is supposedly a forest reserve. Several large houses and hotels are being constructed on the mountain, and clear-cutting of bush and trees is actively going on. This will inevitably result in large scale soil erosion which will kill the reef just below unless the entire hillside is protected and replanted with trees. The reef is already subject to sedimentation damage caused by resuspended muds brought in by the monsoon from the bay and from nearby rivers, and is already near the extreme limit of what it can tolerate, so any increase in erosion from the mountain could destroy the reef.

Other threats to the reef include large scale pollution from the port and city of Galle, including oil, sewage, and industrial wastes. Development of Galle Harbour needs to be controlled to prevent damage to the reef. Proposals to place a container port at Rumassala, which would completely destroy the reef, need to be cancelled, and the port moved to an environmentally sounder location. Sewage inputs to the bay need to be controlled and treated.

Already the growth of the green alga Halimeda opuntia has increased considerably and it is beginning to overgrow corals. Large amounts of coral have been overgrown and killed by green Didemnid Ascidians, encrusting animals which filter zooplankton from the water. The cause of their spread is not known with certainty, but may be due to increased food supplies as the indirect result of plankton growth fueled by excessive sewage nutrients in the bay. Some signs of marine diseases are present, including diseases attacking the Porites head corals and Coralline Algae Lethal Disease attacking the encrusting pink calcareous algae which bind loose rubble and provide the preferred settling site for young corals.

Although access is to the reef not easy, the area is heavily used by local bathers, including many bus loads on weekends, and untrained swimmers have trampled and broken large amounts of fragile coral. Plastic garbage and bottles are found on the shore, and washed in from across the bay. Although Cheap Oakley Sunglasses coral bleaching was not seen in March 1998, coral bleaching took place in mid 1997, probably the result of hot ocean water conditions. Bleaching is likely to happen again in a few months when water temperatures reach their maximum value unless the unusually warm conditions now taking place across the Indian Ocean disappear.

Buona Vista is one of the most important reefs remaining in Sri Lanka from biodiversity and ecotourism points of view. Replanting the trees would allow development of nature tourism for foreigners and locals, and is the only place in Sri Lanka where people could enjoy both coral reefs and forests together. The legendary origin of the mountain is a priceless treasure for a nature park. The entire mountain and coral reef need to be protected in a single management unit, which should include the beaches and coral reefs on the other side of the mountain at Unawatuna. Such management would also need the power to control pollution entering the reefs from adjacent areas of Galle harbour. If this area is protected and managed effectively it could become Sri Lanka’s finest ecotourism attraction.

Effective management of this area will require a strong community base. Unless the local population directly benefits, they will be forced to continue to destroy the natural resources by deforesting and overfishing. They will not be motivated to protect and restore the reef and forest if the benefits of protection accrue to outsiders, so it will be important that any jobs generated from replanting, protection, management, snorkeling guides, boat operators etc. be provided to the community and not be given to non-residents. Unless this happens local resentment against economic benefits flowing elsewhere could backfire against any efforts to protect the area and sabotage its protection and restoration. Improved quality of life should be a major benefit for local residents if beautiful flowers and fruit trees are planted, the soil is conserved, ecologically sound non-polluting composting toilets are built, garbage is collected, paved paths provide safe access, and tourists provide jobs for guides, wardens, and local sellers of food and drinks.

It will be important to push public education on the value of the reef, the factors affecting it, and the ways it could be protected. Much of this is being started by the Nature Conservation Group. People who have never seen the underwater life they live right above, and who are damaging it inadvertently, need to see how the reef grows, and understand that a fish that is caught provides money once, but that one which swims around keeps bringing in more money with every tourist who sees it. This could best be done by preparing educational video showing the beauty of the corals and fish and the factors affecting them both positively and negatively. Several hours of digital underwater film footage were shot at Rumassala and Hikkaduwa on March 22 1998 by the author, which will be used to edit and prepare educational films in cooperation between the Global Coral Reef Alliance, the Nature Conservation Group, the Department of Tourism, and the National Aquatic Resources Agency.

A detailed management plan should be drawn up as quickly as possible to protect this fragile and deteriorating resource that should involve local community groups, the National Aquatic Resources Agency, the Forestry Department, the Wildlife Department, the Port Authority, the Nature Conservation Group, the Department of Tourism, and local hotels in the Galle area. Hotels would greatly benefit by having a beautiful place to send tourists, and should be encouraged to become officially designated financial supporters of the Rumassala-BuonaVista-Unawatuna Nature Park. They could display posters and brochures and a plaque identifying them as sponsors. This would pay very strong dividends by attracting a different class of tourist who appreciates nature. There is a strong world-wide trend towards ecotourism, especially among the German tourists who predominate in Sri Lanka, and such a park would be a strong attraction, as it is the only place where this could be done near the major tourist areas. However, unless this happens very soon, a priceless potential resource for Sri Lanka could soon be lost forever.