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Tsunami's Effects: Man, And The Sea
Taran Rampersad, 30 Dec 04

We continue to count the human loss - the faces of the dead, disconnected from reality by the cloud of statistics to assure manageability. While Emily has posted on mangroves in the region, perhaps we need to take a deeper look as well – peering into the ocean depths. There's a certain irony in this; we know so little about these depths and the effects of a tsunami on them. Like a submarine, we 'ping' for information; like a fishing village, we analyze the flotsam. Yet even as we watch the beach, we need to keep our eyes on the horizon – the future.

While there is speculation about the tsunami affecting the fishing industry, only now are people beginning to realize that there may be a more serious problem than broken boats and ripped nets. While we count lost wages and food, the Indian Fishing Industry itself may be affected for years to come. Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the other Indian Ocean rim countries will have similar problems. Even as fishermen shake their fists at the sea, we must ask, "Where are the fish?" So far, the responses have been shallow.

Fishing Impact

You cannot feed the hungry on statistics -- Heinrich Heine

I'm no marine biologist (and I don't play one on the internet), but that sea life has been affected is without question. When one sees a shark in a swimming pool in Phuket, Thailand, one has to wonder what happened to other fish in the region. At this time, if they have been tossed ashore by nature's whim, they most certainly are rotting and causing a stench, and may be a vector for disease as well.

Historically, tsunamis have impacted sea life. Large waves overrun masses of land, and leave fish in the treetops and sea creatures on land. It's an odd twist that the tsunami trades land animals for sea animals in this way. How many fish were washed ashore on December 26th? How many reefs were damaged?

While we ponder immediate problems and immediate solutions, it's important that evaluation of the actual fish is done. Where literally millions of fish may have died, and where the habitats of the fish nearer the coast have almost certainly been affected, there is no apparent data based on previous tsunamis to indicate the effect on ocean life – and subsequently, human lives that depend on this ocean life. Consider Coral reefs may take years to recover from tsunamis - and therefore, so may the fish. The Coral Reef Heritage of India is a strong one. What will the poor fisherman, who has had his boat wrecked and has lost income over the last few days, catch in the next few months?

While society has been aware of the effects of fishing and overfishing for quite some time, the numbers tend to be human-centric. We've tried to make made it illegal for humans to inadvertently decimate fish stock although Mother Nature can do it with impunity. This doesn't excuse deep sea scraping; instead it makes humanity's effect on sea life more important. What we call a calamity under cover of a tsunami is something which we actually do ourselves – a natural catastrophe. It's not usually the humble coastal fisherman who does this, instead the larger fishing operations – yet the price paid is one of hunger.

Tsunamis And Sea Life?

The described effects of tsunamis, as far as I have found, haven't taken into account how sea life is affected other than as a side note. With this tsunami, the effect on sea life and the associated ecosystems could well be massive.

When researching this entry, one of the most disturbing things I found was that there was very little available information regarding how sea life is affected. Without prior information, it's difficult to ascertain just how much of an impact that the tsunami will have on fishing, and subsequently, the region's economy. This is definitely an area where tsunami experts may wish to study - it's unlikely that this will be the last tsunami that humanity will encounter. The potential impact on humanity - through food and economy - gives such a study merit. As mentioned in an email in 1998 regarding underwater 'storms':

...Earthquakes can raise tsunami that act impact as huge unexpected waves when they arrive in shallow water. Unless the earthquake is near enough for animals to have sensed the vibrations and hidden, they will caught in the open by this large wave. In the 1750 Lisbon earthquake, reports record that the sea withdrew like a giant low tide, leaving fish flopping around on the seabed. People who went out to view this phenomenon, or to collect the fish, were drowned when the tsunami crashed back over the beaches...

In this particular scenario, it's easy to hypothesize that fish caught on the inside of the tsunami, had they sensed it, would have headed away from it - which would have been, in this massive bay, toward land. In doing so, they may have unwittingly become caught up in the wave. As the tsunami approaches land, it gains height even as it slows down. This would affect sea life within 1 kilometer of land, and perhaps even more depending on the depth of the tsunami in the open sea.

Deeper in the ocean, in the region of the earthquake, many things could have happened. Deformation of the sea floor is almost assured with an earthquake of this strength - but how the sea floor became deformed is open to speculation. That's really the bottom line with this tsunami - it's almost a theme - "We Do Not Know."

Because we do not know, it is time for us to start trying to find out. Maybe somewhere, there's a group of people working on this. And again, with all efforts being pointed toward saving the lives of our brothers and sisters, maybe it isn't. Yet knowing how much of an effect has been had on the sea life may well prepare the countries in the region for long term actions; while aid in the form of assistance and money rolls in, the long term effects will determine the long term assistance needed.

Suspend Fishing?

In the worst-case scenario, the fishing industry may have to be suspended to allow for the sea life to adapt and adjust. These kinds of bans are not unique to developing nations--in fact, they are common across the industrialized world, from Newfoundland, Canada to New Zealand's Pukerua Bay. The lessons being learned from such bans will be instructive.

The UK created a "no-take" zone in the Devon Sea nearly two years ago to try and restore fish stocks. Happily, marine life has made a huge comeback in just 18 months, surprising scientists who now hope that these creatures will venture beyond the borders of the no-fishing zones to repopulate other areas, benefiting local fishermen.

(In early December, a British scientific commission called for massive expansion of no-fishing zones into 30 percent of British territorial waters, including a ban on all deep-sea trawling, to give fish stocks a chance to recover. Bottom trawling of the sea bed was cited as a major factor in the wrecking of the U.K.'s marine life. However, Britain was one of several countries which recently impeded the adoption of an E.U. ban on trawling the North Sea.)

New livelihoods and sources of food may have to be found. In a way, this ties to Alex's post, Beyond Relief.

The good news is that there may actually have been only a small effect on the land ecosystems. Consider that land animals seem to have done in Sri Lanka, surviving the flooding at the Yala Reserve - but they had somewhere to run.


We've heard much about the missing tourists; the people who not only lost their lives or were otherwise victims of this mortal event – and there's a deeper impact here as well. The South-East Asian coastal areas have had eco-tourism in the form of diving and resorts – where people came from all over the world to visit reefs, and fish. What now?

While the impact on the eco-tourism attractions such as reefs and fishing have yet to be determined in a concrete way, it's apparent that they have been affected. How much so remains a question.

Reefballs had been used already in India, and perhaps this is one way in which something can be salvaged for both fishermen and eco-tourism. In a twist, it recycles fly ash – a pollutant.

The Solutions

While Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN) says that Human activities contributed to tsunami's ravages, perhaps it is time to consider how to minimize these ravages.

Realistic numbers for aid, as well as continued development, require more assessment of the economy of the coastline - and the fish that feed it.

Continued work with Coral Reef Conservation with UNDP might be an idea, with an emphasis on artificial reefs to replace or help existing reefs recover. This will also help the fish recover, but it's likely that this will take time – time without fishing.

Most importantly, this is a time for assessment of the impact on ocean life, and also the impact of ocean life on mankind. It's also time to consider how mankind impacts the ocean – and how to minimize negative impact in such a fragile environment. The tsunami, in it's sheer power, reminds us all how fragile we are – but it should also remind us of the fragility of life on our planet.

Special thanks to Emily Gertz for pointing out the bans on fishing in developed nations, and in conjunction with Alex Steffen, help with editing.

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The tsunami itself, in all likelyhood, will have little long term impact on the majority of the marine fisheries in the region.

There is one issue that resonates with me as to the future of this region's fisheries and other marine resources: the human response and rebuilding effort

The extremely tragic but practical lesson of the tsunami is that with the loss of the once extensive mangrove system [read Emily Gertz's article on Restoring Mangroves in the region.] comes the loss of ecological function. One function of mangroves is protection from storm surge events (and one can argue this applies to tsunamis as well, although the protection is limited at best). Another function of mangroves is their role as nursery grounds for marine and estaurine fishes.

Deforestation and subsequent coastal development can be unhealthy for coastal fisheries and reef systems in numerous ways by diminimishing available habitat, increasing erosion rates, increasing organic pollution, warming water temperatures, disrupting sand deposition rates, etc.

From a global perspective sustainable redevelopment of this area would be ideal. But looking at it from a more realistic perspective (i.e. immediate economic need) there's little financial rationale for limiting coastal development and replanting mangroves.

Shore-based aquaculture facilities will be rebuilt more extensively and bigger than before increasing the near shore organic load, fishing fleets will return with more capacity than before (which has been a disater for many North American and Northern European fisheries), tsunami warning systems will be put in place and tourism will return to stay at newly built shoreline monoliths...

It's hard to stand and wave your flag for long-term (multi-generational) sustainable redevelopment when people face such immediate and dire straits (and when one is standing in a country that's done a crap job of it itself). Nonetheless I hope it's a dialogue that is at least undertaken along the way.

Posted by: rosebengal on 30 Dec 04

Can you say, with certainty, that there will be no long term effects to the life in the ocean - and if so, do you have supporting data?

Frankly, I think you're wrong - but the degree to which you are wrong is what I am concerned about. I hope you are 100% correct. I don't think you are.

Posted by: Taran on 30 Dec 04

Rosebengal, I hope you're right, too.

Fascinating post, Taran.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 30 Dec 04

Hi Taran (btw - I think it's a great and thought provoking article and I forwarded the link to a group that deals internationally with marine protected areas to see what they have to say)

All of the previous comment is based on supposition assisted by a background in marine science and fisheries management (although I mostly just work with estuarine invertebrates these days).

I will readily concur that there seems to be little to no previous work evaluating the effects of tsunamis on fish stock. But I have to say that I'll stand by my statement that the tsunami - as a singlular ecological event - did little long-term damage to the standing stock of marine fishes that are commercially harvested the region.

But let's look more closely at what information is out there and available for interpretation (and or speculation).

According to your link on Indian fisheries in 1990 India produced 4.1 million tons of fish, over half of which was produced inland (ie. via aquaculture) - so let's estimate that we're dealing with 2 million tonnes of marine fishes (probably an overestimate - although global fish production is on the rise a fair chunk of the increase is due to aquaculture in the past 20 or so years according to the FAO . That's a lot of fish and while there are articles that discuss finding "thousands of fish" flopping on the beaches, dead in trees, etc. it's truly a small proportion of the total fishery.

Until the reach critical depth waves don't really move water the are energy that moves "through" the water which is why vast areas of ocean that the tsunami passed through were unaffected - and that's why there are accounts from fishermen who went out to sea and returned to devastation with no idea of what had happened.

We can also look at the fisheries by species: The following are highly migratory pelagic marine species that aren't primarily found right along the coast (from the above India fisheries link): mackerel, sardines, whitebait (probably a herring, shark and tuna. The the sole which could be many species ranging from freshwater to deep marine waters. Then there are the perch, croaker and carangidae - these guys range from inshore to 100 m deep waters (see for loads of specific info) so again I would assume that these may not have been impacted.

That leaves silverbelly and ribbonfish and the cuttlefish (actually related to squid and octopus- live in shallow reef areas) - these are more coastal and estuarine dependent species and may have experienced the most habitat destruction - although not as much loss as from development I would guess.

As for reef replacement with fly ash - the tsunami may have been single handedly responsible for pulling more artifical reef material into the water - the debris washed out to sea by the retreating waters will colonize rapidly. Coral loss will be significant but broken corals may repopulate the reef areas as well. Coral reefs globally are facing far worse problems than tsunamis in my opinion (warm water induced bleaching, invasive alage and urchins, black spot pathogens, organic loading, poaching for aquarium resale, smothering by sediment, etc.)

Perhaps the best (and very recent) news is that scientists are looking into the impacts on marine life.

But I'm always up for more discourse...

Posted by: rosebengal on 30 Dec 04

Rosebengal - Thank you! This is what I really wanted to happen with this post - actual discussion.

The link on Indian fisheries: Excellent point. Unfortunately, it still doesn't answer the problem of fishermen along the coast who have earned their living from the sea.

As far as the fish affected - yes, we are talking in theory right now. Absolutely. And hopefully you're 100% correct - I want you to be correct. Yet, as the wave approached shore in different area, there was absolutely no place for some of these species to go. Sharks who have survived are probably pretty fat right now (since sharks are scavengers as well).

The artificial reefs, and the creation of new ones by the tsunami - excellent point, something I overlooked. But still, this will need to be assessed.

The link, Tsunami may leave marine species unscathed is an interesting one, but it doesn't seem to be much more than some calming words at this point. Granted, if anyone knows the fish in the region, it should be Mr. Premchand - but there's nothing that is in the article that is anything more than we are discussing. What's needed is actual data.

I really hope that they do look into this seriously, after the immediate human emergency is over. There's nothing in recent times which compares to this calamity - even most recent tsunamis of similar size or greater do not seem to have had the effect along as much as the coastline.

Factors which would probably affect this most are the topology along the coastline - how the tsunami was channeled to shore - and the gradient of the sea bed toward shore, and the distance... as well as the sea life within this region.

While certain species may not be directly affected, it is still worth interest because many species may be indirectly affected. Consider the shark; feast now - perhaps famine later?

The theme remains "We don't know". This is a good time for the physicists and marine biologists to really see what happens. The worst that could happen is that we learn more about the planet we live on. :-)

But first, we must take care of the living.

Posted by: Taran on 30 Dec 04

Double the good news - The Bangkok Times is reporting that initial surveys show only 10% of affected reefs thus surveyed were damaged by waves, and that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is considering a balanced coastal management plan for land use, conservation and diaster mitigation. I may get to throw off my cynics hat after all!

Posted by: rosebengal on 30 Dec 04

Good news so far. I hope it keeps coming in; the fact that the Thais are doing the research is very heartening.

Posted by: Taran on 30 Dec 04

I don't think we have any clear evidence on the effects the tsunami had directly on fish populations and reef communities.

I would think that the major negative impacts would be a) the withdrawal of the sea exposing the reefs subaerially, and the death of fish stocks trapped in the intertidal zone; b) the effects of the surges that brought fish inland and trapped them as the water withdrew; c) heavy sediment loads generated from the withdrawing water and turbulence; and d) pollutants (petrochemicals, sewage, etc.) that might be brought back into the water.

Conversely (and sadly an bit cynically...though not intentionally), the reduction of fishing fleets destroyed in the disaster might have a positive effect on fish population recovery. Dynamite fishing might be suspended. Sewage (and petrochemical pollution) in many of these areas already is disposed of in the seas/rivers so an abandonment of cities and urban areas might actually improve conditions for recovery of reefs and fish stocks.

It will be interesting to see what long-term studies show...but ias in all things in dynamic systems we might find effects that we attribute to the tsunami that might be the result of other changes (climate change, etc.).

Posted by: Red Ape on 30 Dec 04

Yes, I read that in Banda Aceh, gas and oil were 'everywhere' from gas stations. I didn't factor in pollutants in the post, and I should have. Of course, there's also the issue of land mines as well...

The long term studies will be useful, but you're absolutely right about some effects being caused by other things as well. Hopefully, there's enough pre-existing data from the region to allow for removal of such artifact in the data...

Posted by: Taran on 30 Dec 04

Please note the comparatively fewer lives lost in the Maldives (69) than other effected areas, likely due to its relatively intact coral reef system. The devastating tsunamis would likely have been less so if the coral reefs and mangrove swamps had not been destroyed. Development, such as for fish farms and tourist resorts, must learn to live with coral reefs and mangrove swamps, or else we invite future recurring devastation.

Posted by: Willie on 31 Dec 04


Look back to Alaska in '65, this is a great source of comparison for a Tsunami's effect on a marine based economy. Remember just how much Alaska coast was involved too (Valdez, Homer, Kodiak Island, Anchorage, Unalaska, etc.). It was probabaly (not based on stats) a comparable amount of coastline.

Once the fishing operations were back on their feet in Alaska, the was very little noticable difference in fishing or crabbing.

I cannot speak to the damage done to the coral, beaches, etc but in my under-educated estimation the fishing industry will be fine long term and should be the least of the concerns.

Posted by: mike on 1 Jan 05

u brought up a good point about fish.

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this website helprd me with my science report!

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Posted by: deisha on 11 Jan 05

We have been discussion the effects of the tsumani on the environment and your article gave us a better understanding of the issues involved. We are still trying to get more information onthe effects on climate change as it relates to rainfall. We live in Southern Africa and have no meaningfull rainfall from the 25 December 2005. The local experts say its normal and the preseason forcast indicated it would be a normal to below normal season in most of the drier parts of the country those receining less than 400mm rainfall. To date most centres have recieved belown 50% of normal. Will just have to wit and seewhat unfolds over the next few months


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