India: Conserving the Gulf of Mannar’s biodiversity

A fisherman casts a net in the Gulf of Mannar, India
A fisherman casts a net in the Gulf of Mannar, off the south eastern coast of India.

The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, off the south eastern coast of India, is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of marine species. Much of the Reserve’s biodiversity depends on the coral reef, which houses numerous species of fish and supports the livelihoods of close to 150,000 fisher folk.

However, between 1988 and 1998, nearly 25 square kilometers of coral reef has been lost. The reef’s biodiversity is increasingly under threat from commercial exploitation, over fishing, illegal mining, changes in the environment and a growing population that depends on the coast for its livelihood.

To encourage sustainable development in the region, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of Tamil Nadu established the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust. Support for the Trust was provided by the Global Environment Facility.


  • Coral reef cover increased by fifty percent between 2005 and 2009. Coral mining has completely stopped and a seasonal ban on seaweed collection has been put in place Since 2010, no new registrations for bottom trawlers have been issued in the Gulf of Mannar.
  • Between 2002-2012, UNDP has partnered with the government of Tamil Nadu to help fishermen continue to earn a living and at the same time protect their fragile environment.
  • 77,000 fisher folk have benefited from awareness generation activities and close to 2,000 youth from fishing communities got vocational trainings to secure employment outside of the fishing industry.
  • An educational centre on coastal and marine biodiversity attracts more than 500 visitors daily

The Trust has helped provide local communities with opportunities to diversify their livelihoods, and thereby prevent the over-exploitation of coastal resources. It has also showed them how to manage resources, both more effectively and in partnership with government and other stakeholders.

“Many of the rare marine species here are being wiped out. If we catch these depleted species, we throw them back, and advise our fellow fishermen to do the same,” says a local fisherman, who goes on to demonstrate how the new, wider mesh of his net spares small fingerling fish and other unwanted catch.

The results are visible. Coral reef cover increased from 37 percent to 43 percent between 2005 and 2009. In addition, coral mining has stopped, seaweed collection out of the Gulf of Mannar National Park has been regularized, and a coastal ban imposed during breeding months helps ensure that the crucial regeneration of species is not disturbed. Since 2010, no new registrations for bottom trawlers have been issued. Project experiences have fed into the Government of India’s Coastal Regulation Notification 2011.

The capacity of communities to participate in developing and implementing conservation strategies has been strengthened. Today 248 village marine conservation and eco-development committees have reached out to 77,000 fisher folk through awareness building activities. These committees also employ local youth to serve as anti-poaching watchers.  An educational centre on coastal and marine biodiversity attracts more than 500 visitors daily.

“Biodiversity conservation cannot be effective without the active engagement of local communities who depend on natural resources in their daily lives,” says Caitlin Wiesen, Country Director for UNDP India.

Women in particular have seen their livelihoods improve. Over 2,000 self-help groups have developed alternative enterprises, such as weaving, jaggery (unrefined sugar) production and jasmine cultivation. In addition, the Trust has supported vocational training for the children of poor fisher folk in electronics repair, welding, computer science printing technology and nursing. Employment of young people in the services sector has increased as a result of this training to almost 2,000 youth.

The successful model demonstrated in the Gulf of Mannar has resulted in a special allocation of US$ 2 million by the Tamil Nadu government over the next four years (2013-2017). This has ensured sustainability of conservation and livelihood generation activities after the project closed in 2012.