Saving the Sinking Islands


Averi Carlson, Contributor

In the shallow waters between India and Sri Lanka, a collection of small islands face the danger of sinking. A total of twenty-one islands reside there and are slowly being submerged under the water. So far only two of the islands have completely sunk and many more are close. The one most in danger of sinking was Vaan Island. 

In 1973, Vaan Island was a total of 65 acres, but by 2016 the island shrunk to a size of only ten acres. At that rate, researchers estimated that the entire region would be fully submerged by 2022. Gilbert Mathews was the first person to address this issue by taking a group of marine experts to investigate a way to save the sinking islands. 

Before the islands started sinking, their waters were teeming with marine life. It was home to 23% of India’s 2,200 fish species, and nearly one hundred species of crab. Many fishermen relied on this spot for their business. Since the islands are becoming submerged, fishermen are finding less fish each day. After diving and inspecting the islands for many months, Mathews finally found a solution. He realized that when the fishermen had been throwing their nets, they had been tearing up the seagrass and coral reefs on the ocean floor. Without the reefs, many animals left the area in search of a better place to live. Mathews said, “We believed that by restoring the seagrass meadows along these waters, we could strengthen the island and possibly save this one and prevent others from submerging into the sea.” 

The usage of artificial reefs reduces the effects of waves and enhances the surrounding area for higher fish protection and production. This happens when the artificial reefs bond with the natural coral. Once this occurs, the regeneration of the coral can take place. The plantation of the seagrass and coral started quickly afterward in the year 2013. However, the erosion of the islands continued. By the beginning of 2016, Vaan Island had completely split in two. 

Mathews made plans to speed up the process and soon more sea life started appearing. “I found giant barrel sponges that had been last sighted in these waters 30 years ago,” says Arathy Ashok, coral sponge scholar. In addition to the barrel sponges, other animals, such as the dugong and horse fish, have reappeared. When the sea life returned, so did the fisherman. Back in 1986, a protection law was placed on the area surrounding the islands, however, it didn’t stop the fisherman from fishing there. This caused a major problem because the nets tore up the newly planted seagrass again. Even with this setback, Mathews ordered his crew to keep growing the seagrass. Every few weeks Mathew’s team would come and replace the roots in the weaker patches of seagrass. This slowed the growth of the seagrass, but the islands stopped sinking and more marine life appeared.

 Though the fishermen are a problem, the operation was a success. By the end of 2019 the Vaan island was restored close to its original area. According to Dr. H. Malleshappa, “We have successfully demonstrated this on the Vaan island in the Munnar region. The island which had sunk to a great extent over decades has regained most of its area,” These islands in the Indian Ocean were uninhabited, but the operation was important because it found a new way to save sinking islands. This strategy is now being applied to several islands in the world to stop the progression of the erosion.