Thamarasi Aththanayaka: A conservation story from Sri Lanka

By Thamarasi Aththanayaka and Alyssa Robinson. 

Hello, I am Thamarasi Aththanayaka from Sri Lanka. I don’t know whether you have heard about my small country, which is actually an island in the Indian Ocean. We are lucky to have a beautiful ocean with sandy and rocky beaches, as well as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds. We are blessed with all kinds of amazing marine life. This is the story about me and the conservation efforts we make in Sri Lanka. 

I was born in coastal city called Chilaw in the North Western part of Sri Lanka. To be honest, I didn’t have any interest or fascination for the ocean during my childhood. I think that because I grew up seeing the ocean every day, it became very common to me and consequently I didn’t appreciate its beauty or value.

After graduating high school, I was selected to study Fisheries and Marine Sciences and Technology at the University of Ruhuna Sri Lanka, which is located at the southern coast of Sri Lanka. During my degree, I had the opportunity to study the dynamic marine ecosystems in this region. I was lucky enough to study coral reefs, seagrass beds, and the rich diversity of marine animals that inhabit these ecosystems. I was also able to study lagoon environments and mangroves, which I had a particular interest for. I decided to select Limnology as my specialization for my degree and conducted research in river ecology.

After the completion of my bachelor’s degree, I got the opportunity to work for the Marine Environment Protection Authority in Sri Lanka as Assistant Marine Environment Officer. This Authority is the leading government body that aims to prevent marine pollution in Sri Lanka. Similar to other coastal countries, marine and coastal plastic pollution is a huge issue in Sri Lanka and most of the ecologically and economically important coastal areas have already been polluted. As we have identified there are two main sources of marine litter. More than 80% flows from land to water through runoff, and the remainder directly comes to the coast from the ocean current. Apart from that, in very few areas we have observed that coastal dwellers use the coast as a dumping site for trash. So, my job involves launching different type of programs and activities to address this issue.

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We have conducted beach cleaning programs in coastal areas with the participation of students, coastal dwellers, fishermen and nongovernmental organizations. Through this work, we remove huge amounts of plastic and polythene per year. We also clean lagoon mouths, river mouths and mangrove roots, as they bring large amounts of non-degradable waste from landfills to the ocean. It may be perceived as a simple job, but considering that even one single plastic lid can kill a sea bird by blocking off its digestive tract, I believe that this authority does a great service. We remove hundreds of plastic lids in one day, so it was very rewarding to be able to reduce the suffering of marine animals caused by our species’ extensive use of single use plastics.

With the beach cleaning projects we want to reduce plastic pollution, and also bring awareness of marine pollution to the local communities so they can be involved in protecting the ocean. At the beginning of our campaigns it was very difficult for us to gather volunteers. That’s why we conducted very few beach cleaning programs in the first years. I believe that people were not sensitive towards environmental issues and were reluctant to allocate their time for them. For many people, the main priority is to earn a living and take care of their families, so marine conservation is not a concern for them. Now, we specially target school children with our program since they are the future leaders in the world. But most of the teachers are unwilling to release students during school hours, since it is a disturbance to the education and they are afraid for the safety of students.

However, with time schools have become more involved in our work and sometimes even request us to collaborate with students. We have been able to recruit many volunteers each year to conduct several beach cleaning pro. We are also very happy that sometimes volunteer groups gather themselves to clean the beaches even without our facilitation.

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Beach cleaning program at Kalpitiya Sri Lanka
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Lagoon cleaning program at Negombo Sri Lanka

We also run awareness programs for the school children and fishermen, with the goal of educating locals on the importance of protecting the ocean and reducing plastic pollution. The ocean is a major source of livelihood for coastal dwellers. However, many fishermen lack an understanding of the importance of corals and mangroves for the fishing industry. There is also a gap in knowledge regarding the importance or marine animals, and measures that should be taken to protect them. A small piece of polythene, or one single water bottle that is thrown to the beach can cause many damages to ocean ecosystems and creatures, and this is important information for people who work in the ocean so that they can reduce their impact. These awareness programs are very successful, and the locals like to hear us and are very happy to help with beach cleaning.

We are also planning long term sustainable projects for the prevention of marine pollution. We have established beach management committees in some areas with the participation of local authorities and beach users to prepare a plan for keeping their beach clean, but this is limited only for tourism oriented beaches. Moreover, under the clean seas project, we appoint beach caretakers for the purpose of keeping a selected beach stretch clean. We are also thinking of establishing plastic barriers across the sea out falls since they carry a vast amount of waste during rainy seasons. However, there is a risk of blocking the barrier during huge load which will bring a flooding risk, but we are thinking of solutions for the issues.

Apart from these main tasks, the authority also replants mangroves in the areas where they have been removed due to the construction of shrimp hatcheries. Fishing communities are keen to help with this because the lagoon fisheries are dependent on mangrove health.

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Awareness program for students
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Awareness program for fishermen

After working with the Authority for a while, I soon received a scholarship to conduct my master’s degree in Marine and Lacustrine Sciences and Management from Vrijje Universiteit in Brussels. It is one of my greatest achievements and it helped me to advance my academics. I learned a lot regarding marine biology and geology and I realized the infinite variety of subjects in this field. Conducting my masters also allowed me to network and befriend colleagues from various countries who share my affinity for the ocean and protecting the wellbeing of marine ecosystems. For my research, I studied marine phytoplankton in the North Sea, which was a very different and new topic for me. I was very happy to observe these microscopic creatures because only a few people are able to see them. Most my colleagues in the laboratory were astonished at how I worked with them from morning to evening without feeling bored, as it was time consuming and hard. I had to sit in one position for whole the day and strain my eyes the whole time to see these tiny organisms. But It was not that hard a task for me because I enjoyed observing different diatoms and dinoflagellates and was amazed by their diversity.

“We have a responsibility to the earth and mankind to work together and protect the many resources that we are lucky enough to use, so that they can be sustained for future generations without harming the natural world.”

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Mangrove plantation program

After completing my masters, I came back to Sri Lanka and continued my career as Assistant Marine Environment Officer, where I am still working today. I love it because I can practically help to prevent marine pollution and protect this valuable ecosystem. It is something more than a career to me, and I am so happy to have this job. I have the opportunity to work with different stakeholders and share ideas with them. It is also a new experience, because different people have different attitudes and ideas. Therefore, by working with different kinds of people with various backgrounds help me to gather more experience.

This is my simple life story. I think you can understand the effort and money we are incurring to keep the ocean clean because people have unnecessarily polluted the ocean with preventable single use plastics. Finally, I would like to say that the ocean is a valuable gift and resource to so many forms of life. We have a responsibility to the earth and mankind to work together and protect the many resources that we are lucky enough to use, so that they can be sustained for future generations without harming the natural world.

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