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Changing landscapes of ocean research in India

Oceans matter immensely to the humanity; world’s oceans occupy more than 70% of Earth’s surface area from where the life on earth originated around 4 billion years ago.

Oceans play crucial roles in every sphere of human life. More than 65% of oxygen in the air we breathe set forth from photosynthesis by oceanic phytoplanktons and algae, global weather patterns including Indian monsoon and trade winds are directly affected by oceanic currents, and vast majority of fossil fuel comes from offshore rigs.

Given the universe of knowledge that still requires to be explored in this arena, research and exploration of oceans is looking out more support to quench the thirst of the budding scientists and to harness the resources that the deep blue offers for the people of the country.

A popular saying goes ‘we know moon far better than our own oceans’. While we have high resolution maps of the lunar surface and a large number of moon landings (both manned and unmanned), bathymetry of more than 95% of ocean floors remain unknown to us and explorations towards world’s oceans have been limited- especially in remote deep ocean areas away from major shipping routes. Submarine research explorations are still rare, as the world has only a very few research submarines capable of diving deeper than 4 km. One rare example is the Alvin by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, US.

India has a few notable efforts on ocean research and exploration. Perhaps the best known oceanographic institution is CSIR-National Institute of Oceanography in Goa established in 1966. Their present research vessels include RV Sindhu Sankalp (commissioned in 2008), RV Sindhu Sadhana (2012), while past fleets include RV Gaveshani (1975-95) and CRV Sagar Sukti (2001-2012). Ministry of Earth Sciences was formed in 2006, which is now responsible for ocean research and exploration. Other notable institutes that are involved with ocean research include Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services (ESSO-INCOIS) established in 1998, National Institute of Ocean Technology established in 1993 and National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research established in 1998.

Centralised ocean research administration needed

All search and research efforts can complement each other and gain momentum under a centralized administration of ocean research. While India has a full-fledged organization for space research and exploration (ISRO, in line with international agencies such as NASA of US), the country needs one on ocean research. A full-fledged organization to oversee ocean research and exploration (similar to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA of US), would catapult ocean research to newer dimensions in the country. More well-equipped research ships like RV Sagar Nidhi of NIOT, which ferried Indian Southern Ocean expedition for a number of years, could absolve the cost of leasing foreign ships at hefty rentals. Increase in the number of ships could also increase the number of deep oceanic explorations, thereby raising the probability of marine discoveries.

In 2001 a group of Japanese scientists lead by Jun Hashimoto discovered the existence of hydrothermal vent communities in Indian Ocean, opening the vistas for future research in this often overlooked field. The black smoker communities thriving at around 360°C include several unique life forms with huge bioprospecting likelihoods. With the location of the discovery (eastern crest of an axial valley, approximately 22 km north of the Rodriguez Triple Junction) is near India, we may have taken the credit for it if there were a research submarine at our disposal. This research was aided by Japan’s remotely operated submarine ROV Kaiko and its support ship RV Kairei. Perhaps this discovery highlights the urgent need for the procurement of a research submarine as well as remotely operated vehicles to assist the ocean exploration and research by the Government of India.

Marine biodiversity research

Despite the limited equipment, Indian marine biologists have made several strides documenting marine biodiversity of our coasts and oceans. For example, our team has discovered three new species of marine seaweeds from the Indian coast unknown to the science till date; Ulva paschima Bast, Cladophoragoensis Bast and Ulva uniseriata Bast. All the three new species of algae are endemic to Indian waters and have been documented as “bloom” formers- as these algae rapidly reproduce and cover a vast stretch of coastal regions during suitable climatic conditions. We have also discovered the existence of endophytic alga (Ulvellaleptochaete) for the first time from Indian ocean. Endophytic algae live inside their macroalgal host symbiotically. Other notable contributions include several new taxonomic records of marine algae in Indian waters, documentation of invasive species of seaweeds in Indian coastline and phylogeography of several Indian algae.

Ulva uniseriata Bast













Figure: Newly discovered green algae Ulva uniseriata Bast

Marine algal biodiversity can roughly be divided into three areas; cyanobacteria, microalgae and macroalgae. Within the discipline of phycology or algology, all these three areas are covered and its biodiversity characterization and inventorying encompass a major component of algal research. Several algal species, both macro- and micro-algae, exhibits morphological plasticity with respect to biotic and abiotic factors. With change in external environment such as salinity or presence of epiphytic bacterial species, the algae change its morphology. Therefore, morphology-based classical taxonomy is highly problematic for the characterization of marine algal biodiversity, for which modern tools of molecular systematics are being increasingly employed. Molecular systematics make use of generating short genomic sequence data from the unknown plant specimen, and compare this information with the curated database containing millions of known species.

Apart from algal taxonomy, other key areas of marine biodiversity research in India include taxonomy of sea grasses, marine invertebrates, marine fish, marine mammals, marine reptiles and so on. A large number of conservation biologists are working on the conservation of marine biota, Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelysolivacea) for instance. There are many zoologists who are involved with characterizing as well as on conservation of coral reef communities in Indian coastal region. A few groups are focused on characterizing biodiversity of zooplankton communities. A large number of microbiologists are involved with characterization and inventorying of marine bacteria from Indian coastal regions as well as from the ocean. A number of new species of marine bacteria have been documented from the Indian waters.

There are a total of 31 marine protected areas in India. Perhaps the best known are Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park at Wandoor, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park at Ramanathapuram/Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. While there are several laws in force to protect and conserve marine biodiversity, effective implementation and enforcement of those laws needs better attention. Because of unsustainable practices such as harvesting of juvenile fishes by trawlers, fishing industry is now facing a challenge unlike never been before. Decline in oceanic fish stock is a global phenomenon and repercussions of it will cause additional impact on Indian fisheries sector. Marine litter pollution is yet another area that urgently need attention from the policy makers. As the final destination of almost all of the single-use plastic is world’s oceans, a complete nation-wide ban of single-use plastic seems to be the only viable solution to combat this menace. Additionally, problem of microplastics-which is often overlooked- need to be effectively addressed as well.

Emerging areas of marine research

With the changing times and environment, new areas of marine biodiversity are constantly emerging. Research on the impact of climate change on Indian marine biodiversity needs to be boosted. This research is significant in multiple aspects. An often overlooked effect of climate change is ocean acidification. With decreasing pH of the oceans, almost the entire marine biodiversity is affected. While the effect of ocean acidification on coral reef ecosystem is well known, the effect on other marine organisms remain largely unknown. It is believed that marine algae are the most susceptible of the whole marine biota in response to ocean acidification. Therefore, further research on the response of marine alga with decreasing ocean pH is warranted. Global warming also causes warming of oceans, as the world’s oceans act as giant planetary-scale heat sink. Commercial seaweed cultivation, especially that of Kappaphycusalvarezii, is being affected because of this increased seawater temperature. The effect of ocean warming on other marine organisms, especially on the fauna, remains largely unknown.

Another emerging research area is the effect of micro-plastics on marine biodiversity. Vast majority of micro-plastics in the world’s ocean results from the degradation of macro-plastics, while many are due to the pollution by plastic beads, fibres, granules and fragments. Micro-plastics endanger the entire marine biota, from the marine lungworms and zooplanktons all the way to the top predators such as sharks and marine birds are affected through a process called biomagnification.

Marine biodiversity has considerable economic importance and is a major driver for the national GDP. Marine fisheries and aquaculture industries are major revenue generators. Commercial seaweed cultivation is still at its infancy in India, with only a handful of coastal seaweed farms established, most of which are situated in Tamil Nadu. There are a few seaweed-based industries in India that extracts carrageenan, agar and alginin for its further export. A few small-scale industries are involved with raceway pond culture systems for the cultivation of microalgae/  cyanobacteria such as Chlorella, Dunaliella, Spirulina, Klebsormidium and so on. At several isolated places especially in Maharashtra, pearl oyster farming has emerged as an economic driver for coastal fishing communities.

While several strides have been made by Indian marine biologists in documenting marine algal biodiversity of India using modern molecular systematic-based approaches, such efforts on other taxonomic lineages especially on fauna are to be done. We wait for the day when ocean research can flourish in India with a research organization dedicated to oceans (“National Ocean Research Organization”). Other urgent requirement to foster ocean research in the country includes procurement of an ice breaker ship, a research submarine capable of deep dives or a Remotely Operated Diving vehicle, and a robust research vessel capable of undertaking long oceanic voyage.

Dr. Felix Bast
Department of Plant Sciences,
Central University of Punjab,
Mansa Road, Bathinda, 151001, Punjab, India

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by the author. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of organization.