Just over a month ago in remarkable unison, several separate communities
arrayed on India’s coastline alongside the Arabian Sea reported the
presence of sparkling waves – the technical term is bioluminescent – which
looked like they were embedded with blue-green glitter, and kept rolling up
to the shore one after another every night. Sizable crowds assembled to
admire this “magical effect” at Juhu Beach in Mumbai, and Udupi and
Mangalore in Karnataka, as well as the Kochi waterfront in Kerala.

In my home state of Goa, the shimmering tides surfaced on the north and
south beach belts, as well as the Mandovi and Zuari river estuaries. But no
one cheered, because they came accompanied by dense swarms of jellyfish,
including species known for being toxic. Over just two end-November days,
90 tourists were stung badly enough to require treatment, after which the
panicked authorities stopped releasing data. Before and afterwards, as
clearly visible from where I live near Miramar beach in the pocket-sized
capital city of Panjim, thousands of these gelatinous creatures continued
washing up every day, with innumerable others bobbing offshore.

The two phenomena – glitter and jellyfish, beauty and danger – are
inextricably interlinked. Together, they represent yet another pressing
warning about the ill-health of our oceans, which is profoundly connected
to broader planetary trends of dangerously deteriorating ecological
systems. At the base of the problem is drastically dwindling oxygen in the
Arabian Sea - a phenomenon known as hypoxia – which allows the malodorous,
bioluminescent “sea sparkle” *Noctiluca Scintillans* to flourish, which in
turn leads the population of jellyfish and salps (another gelatinous
creature) to explode, eventually disrupting the intricate food chain. We
have been seeing warning signs for years, but what is now playing out along
the Konkan and Malabar coasts indicates a perfect storm of devastating
factors has already taken shape.

“I wish I could sound optimistic, but I think the Arabian Sea ecosystem is
past its tipping point,” says Dr. Joaquim Goes, of Columbia University’s
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Earlier this year in May, he joined nine
co-authors (they include his wife, Dr. Helga do Rosario Gomes) in
publishing an important study in the *Nature Scientific Reports* journal
entitled *Ecosystem state change in the Arabian Sea fuelled by the recent
loss of snow over the Himalayan-Tibetan Plateau region*. It highlighted
“exceptional changes” which “represent a significant and growing threat for
regional fisheries and the welfare of coastal populations.”

Even as recently as that paper earlier this year, the emphasis was still
not on India, but remained focused on the opposite shores of the Arabian
Sea, and countries like Oman where desalination plants, refineries and
other industrial complexes have become choked by jellyfish. But even more
dramatic are the effects in Yemen and Somalia, where there are strong
suggestions that the Noctiluca blooms, and their strangling of fish
supplies have greatly exacerbated food and economic insecurity, and thus
triggered the ongoing social destabilization, militarism and piracy that
roils the region.

When his research was published, Goes did presciently tell me [see:]
that “exactly the same changes that we report along the coasts of Oman and
Yemen are happening on a smaller scale not too far from our shores.” He had
pointed out that Noctiluca was clearly present near Ratnagiri and Vengurla
in Maharashtra, and – relating its potential impact to what was happening
around him as Covid-19 peaked in New York City – warned  unequivocally that
“our planet’s alarm bells are ringing. There are very serious implications
for India. All the hard-won economic gains of the past two decades could be
wiped out now, just as the pandemic has done for the USA.”

Fast forward just six months later, and now Goes is much more worried. He
says the situation has become significantly worse. When I emailed him to
tell him what has been happening on Miramar beach outside my home, he
responded that it looked like an end game, which has “the propensity of
short-circuiting the entire food chain, because when Noctiluca abounds the
apex predators are not fish, but swarms of jellyfish and salps. The
environmental and socio-economic costs can be huge as they clog the intake
systems of all kinds of industrial plants, and also inflict huge economic
losses on tourism and fisheries.”

Goes pointed me to the newly published findings in *Reviews and syntheses:
Present, past, and future of the oxygen minimum zone in the northern Indian
Ocean*, which was published earlier this month in *Biogeosciences* by Dr.
Tim Rixen of the Liebniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research in Germany,
and several co-authors. Collaborators from nine different international
institutions (which include the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad)
discovered there are worrisome and seemingly self-perpetuating signs of
“functional anoxia” (which means the lasting lack of sufficient oxygen to
maintain normal ocean biodiversity) in the Arabian Sea. They reported
widespread conditions in which Noctiluca flourishes, but almost nothing
else can survive.

I immediately wrote to Rixen to ask for some perspective about what is
happening in the ocean waters of India’s Arabian Sea coastline, and he
quickly responded, “I am not surprised but worried, because it indicates a
regime shift caused by the expansion of the oxygen minimum zone [or OMZ,
where oxygen saturation in the sea water is at its inhospitable lowest]. I
could imagine that this will affect fisheries, as well as the role of the
marine biosphere as an essential store of carbon dioxide.”

Rixen elaborated, “functional anoxia means that anoxic microbial processes
start to dominate the ecosystem even though trace amounts of oxygen are
still present. This occurs naturally in mangrove soils and marine
sediments, but only rarely in the ocean. At such low oxygen concentrations
bioavailable forms of nitrogen are converted into air, which could lower
the productivity of marine systems and increase the formation of greenhouse
gases.” Put more simply, these inhospitably low concentrations of oxygen
are markedly below the percentages needed for most organisms to survive.
This means we are on the verge of mass mortality events, in which most fish
– including the varieties that humans rely on for nutrition – will die en

How did we get to this desperate state of affairs, that imperils the lives
and livelihoods of millions of Indians as well as all the other communities
that live near the Arabian Sea? One big reason is sewage: thousands of
megaliters (the metric equivalent of a million liters) of untreated waste
are released every day from megacities like Karachi and Mumbai, as well as
every other coastal community in this part of the world. Even in tiny Goa,
as far back as 2011, the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) had
already cautioned that all coastal waters and rivers are so thoroughly
contaminated with E-coli (fecal) bateria they’re actually unsafe for

Another significant factor is the inexorably grinding logic of climate
change. In their *Nature Communications* paper, Goes and Gomes et al wrote
“The recent trend of global warming has exerted a disproportionately strong
influence on the Eurasian land surface, causing a steady decline in snow
cover extent over the Himalayan-Tibetan Plateau region. Here we show that
this loss of snow is undermining winter convective mixing [which aids
marine biodiversity, in turn supporting humans who rely on fisheries] and
causing stratification of the upper layer of the Arabian Sea at a much
faster rate than predicted by global climate models.”

These twinned processes – urban run-off into the Arabian Sea, and climate
disruption due to global warming – have been at work for many years, but no
one expected how quickly they would wind up wrecking the ecological
balance. After all, the first sizable presence of Noctiluca in the Arabian
Sea was found as recently as 2000, by the NIO scientist Dr. Prabhu
Matondkar (he has since retired) who says he was initially rather taken
aback to find “massive greentides in the open ocean.” It took another full
decade of research for him to arrive at the realization. “this new bloom
had come to stay.”

But now, Matondkar – who lives in Goa near me, and continues to pay close
attention to the ocean – is quite alarmed. He told me what has happened on
our shores in recent weeks is “beyond expectation. Noctiluca means the end
of the food chain as we know it. It poses the major challenge to us, and
our world, in the coming decades. We have to study and understand the
ecology of this organism fully, or we will not be able to manipulate the
situation back in favour of the natural flora of our marine ecosystem. If
that does not happen there is going to be disaster for our environment, and
the resources we need to survive.”

In *Understanding the dietary relationship between extensive Noctiluca
bloom outbreaks and Jellyfish swarms along the eastern Arabian Sea (West
coast of India) *another new paper published in August in the *Indian
Journal of Geo Marine Sciences*, L. C. Thomas, S.B. Nandan and K. B.
Padmakumar of the Cochin University of Science and Technology explained in
detail what is now occurring on a giant scale along the entire western

Describing how closely Noctiluca and jellyfish overlap, thus driving
concomitant increases in each other’s population, they write “the
increasing jellyfish population feeds on mesozooplankton and provides
favourable conditions for N. scintillans to [flourish] by feeding on
diatoms with less competition. With the plentiful availability of N.
scintillans cells, these jellyfishes utilize them as a food source [which
in turn leads] to jellyfish swarming.” All this is the definition of “a
disrupted food chain characterizing an unsustainable and less diverse

When I wrote to ask whether he was surprised just how bad the situation had
become in the marine environment off the western coastline, Dr. Padmakumar
gave me a measured response, saying “We can’t say that it is permanently
being compromised. Of course, there are many disruptive changes occurring
in the Arabian sea ecosystem like habitat destruction, debris accumulation,
microplastic pollution increase, expansion of the oxygen minimum zone and
increasing harmful algal blooms. However, there is some kind of resilience
undertaken by these ecosystems that try to recoup towards a healthy state.
This continuously happens but the limit of this resilience is questionable.”

An identically hedged, but distinctly ominous position was also taken by
Dr. Rixen when I asked whether what we are seeing now is a kind of death
knell marking the point of no return for the health of the Arabian Sea. He
cautioned, “one has to look at causes. Solving the problem of
eutrophication [the term refers to accumulation of sediments, minerals and
nutrients] and pollution is largely related to socio–economical issues,
while global warming impacts will most likely be irreversible on
interannual to decadal time scales, even if the Paris agreement will be
implemented. This is largely caused by the slow response of the ocean to
changes of the atmospheric temperature. Whether regime shifts will be
reversible, I do not know.”

For his part, Goes is clear we are in a dire situation. He says we have no
choice but to act collectively, and immediately to “limit our carbon
footprint, and look to sustainable energy alternatives – such as solar - to
power our homes. We have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,
especially coal, by incentivizing industries and homes to switch to
renewable sources. This drastic loss of snow, if it continues, will
permanently disrupt the monsoon rainfall cycle which drives our
agricultural sector, and we are already seeing early signs of erratic and
sometimes extreme rainfall patterns. Meanwhile, our fisheries are now
gravely threatened by the disruption of the marine environment. India’s
food security is at stake.”

Reply via email to