Tell us about yourself

A Saligao resident, Gabriella D’Cruz is a marine conservationist who has recently graduated with a Masters in Biodiversity Conservation and Management from the University of Oxford. She currently lives in Edinburgh where she is studying seaweed for its ability to solve the ocean’s plastic problem and create enterprise among coastal communities. Via an email interview, she shares her views and hopes for the ocean especially Goa’s coastline.

It is evident you have a special bond with the ocean. How did your love for it and its conservation commence?

I am very fortunate to have amazing parents who have supported my career throughout. When I was eight years old they took away the television and subscribed to the National Geographic magazine instead. As you can imagine, this didn’t go down well with eight-year old me, but as a result I spent much more time outdoors, read a lot and had a great childhood. Goa is such a beautiful place to grow up in with its beaches, estuaries, rivers, coral reefs and rich coastal heritage. Engaging with these spaces brings out the child in me and there’s nothing that makes me happier.

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A bit about your work …

“It’s 11.30 am on a perfect Monday morning off the Island of Koh Tao in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand. I am 13 meters below the surface of the ocean and I’ve got work to do. I pick up a piece of coral that glimmers in the filtered light and attach it onto a metal structure by means of nylon rope. Sewing away peacefully as I hum a tune in my head. Two minutes later I’ve fixed a tiny coral fragment onto an artificial reef. That small coral colony will grow slowly everyday, expending copious amounts of energy to build a calcareous skeleton. Years later when I return to that patch of Ocean floor I am sure to see a huge beautiful and diverse coral reef that once started with that little piece of coral. That is the beauty of artificial reefs.

Tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Gabrielle D’Cruz has been working on understanding the importance of coral reefs in Goa. A passion for swimming lead Gabrielle D’Cruz to see the beauty of the ocean and this love further grew when she decided to work towards saving the ocean bed from further deterioration.Having grown up along the coast, I am deeply concerned with the degradation of India’s marine ecosystems. My undergraduate degree in Environmental Science at Fergusson College in Pune was where I understood the science behind marine ecological processes but working with organizations such as the National Institute of Oceanography, and the World Wildlife Fund as well as with local coastal businesses was where I truly understood the complexities of marine resource management. I also studied Environmental Law at National Law School of India University. I believe that capacity building programs that encourage community stewardship, educational programs that initiative conversations about marine ecosystems, and policy and law based on sound science are where we need to begin, in order to conserve India’s extensive and fragile marine resources.

“ I loved swimming and diving and gradually learnt about ocean water pollution and garbage and sewage entering the water. There is an economic incentive in saving the coral reefs as it encourages diving tourism and helps in saving the fish stock. Coral reefs cover only 0.2 per cent of the world’s oceans, and supports 25 per cent of all marine life. People think they look pretty and beautiful but it helps in fishfarming and with the shortage of fish in the market, it is time to understand its importance,” says Gabrielle from Saligao.

Tell us about experience diving in Thailand

In Thailand, Gabrielle undertook a course at the New Heaven Dive School where she was taught about building an artificial coral reef. “Artificial Coral Reefs are man made structures which have natural corals that then produce their own calcareous skeleton and grow onto the artificial reef. One can build an artificial coral reef which is carefully designed and then it has to be sunk next to the natural coral reef. It has to be placed next to the shrinking coral reefs without damaging the natural reef. The artificial coral reef has to be firmly placed so that it doesn’t move around and has holes and passages to allow fish to have homes which in turn will help in fish farming . Shipwrecks make wonderful artificial coral reefs,” says Gabrielle, daughter of Dean and Alice D’Cruz.

What do you do at Goa?

Speaking about corals reefs in Goa, Gabrielle explains, “There are 12 diving sites in Goa with some deeper sites where divers usually don’t go. We still have to map the area where coral reefs are present. The water is not very clear near the coast and the sediments get washed away while coral reefs require adequate sunlight, nutrients and wave action. There are two large shipwrecks off Grande Island which makes it worth a trip for divers.”

She further adds, “Coral reefs can be used for eco-tourism but a policy has to be in place to check the number of boats visiting the islands and that they don’t park their boats over a coral reef and drop their anchor on it. It can damage the coral reef and leave it open to disease. It grows 10 centimetres in a year and it is a creature that has been on Earth for the past 10,000 years, making it the real natural heritage of Goa. Even divers should be trained properly to not touch the coral or interfere with the reef.

Tell us about your scholarship to study at Oxford

I am very grateful to have received the Oxford Indira Gandhi Graduate Scholarship to pursue my Masters in Biodiversity Conservation and Management this year at Somerville College, Oxford. It was Mrs. Gandhi who adjured for the conservation of India’s coastline, through a directive which was later formulated into the Coastal Regulation Zone Rules in the year 1991. This progressive piece of legislation stands today as the primary custodian of India’s coastline.

Through my learnings at Oxford, I hope to be a part of the collective endeavours of the researchers, conservationists, policy makers, and coastal communities that continue to sustain India’s incredible marine ecosystems.

You have interned with the New Heaven Reef Conservation programme, Thailand, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa and studied coral reefs closely. What is the value of coral reefs according to you?

Coral reefs support 25 per cent of all marine life. That’s a lot when you consider the diversity of species that live in the oceans. Reefs safeguard coastlines from storms by buffering over 97 per cent of wave energy, they contribute to UD$ 36 billion worth of coastal tourism and they have been known to possess substances that are used in the treatment of cancer. When you look at reefs from a purely ecological stance, they are invaluable to the health of the oceans. They are the breeding and spawning grounds for thousands of marine species. In vast expanses of open ocean, coral reefs are the cities of the sea. Losing reefs will put over a quarter of our oceanic species at risk of extinction.

Can you tell us about the artificial coral reefs that you studied at the Reef programme in Thailand?

During my internship there in 2015, I worked with a fabulous group of people in helping construct and monitor artificial coral reefs. Artificial reefs are cement or metal structures that assist the growth of corals by acting as a substrate upon which they grow. While there’s huge potential to construct artificial reefs to help increase the surface area of coral reefs, it doesn’t stop the problem of coral bleaching and ocean acidification. I really do believe that saving coral reefs is a political endeavour where countries have to collectively commit to reducing their carbon emissions and reducing the pressure on reefs by monitoring fisheries, ocean pollution and tourism.

You have interned at many places, which one really stands out and why?

One of my most interesting internships was with the WWF Goa office where I worked with a small dedicated team, monitoring the local coral reef and dolphin watching industry. It was through this internship that I knew I wanted to work in the marine conservation space. It was a fascinating mix of ecological monitoring, policy development, community engagement and long hours on dolphin watching boats, witnessing tourists screaming at dolphins while Bollywood music blared in the background. I think what stood out the most was the commitment of the people on my team and their deep concern for the marine space. I have high respect for India’s marine conservation community and the incredible work they do.

At present you are working and learning about seaweed in Edinburgh. Can you elaborate?

I’m working at Mara Seaweed, a company that produces food products from locally sourced, hand harvested seaweed from Scottish waters. Through this work experience I hope to return to India to develop a social enterprise to assist coastal communities in growing and harvesting seaweed. India has over 600 species of seaweed growing along its coastline, many of which are edible and commercially viable. Seaweed extracts produce fantastic gelling agents that are widely used in food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. It’s in your toothpaste, ice-cream, moisturizer and probably your beer. Seaweed has great potential as a super food, bio-fuel and bio-plastic given that it grows three times faster than any land plant. I am of the opinion that seaweed cultivation and harvesting can support India’s coastal communities, it however has to be carried out in an environmentally sustainable way with policy to back.

We have always prided ourselves on Goa’s coastline but it is a fact that its destruction is very much under way. What according to you is its present condition?

I think it’s really sad that we undermine the value of our coastline. Goa’s tourism benefits from its beaches and marine space and yet we haven’t quite understood what it would mean to lose this natural resource. Sand dunes are the reason we are protected from wave surges and storms. Mangroves are the reason we don’t have floods in our villages and cities. Khazan lands provide us with food and support local livelihoods and coral reefs sustain our local fish stocks. The new CRZ rules will allow infrastructural development upto 50 metres from the high tide line. That means we stand the chance of losing our sand dunes, a significant portion of our mangroves and our khazan lands. Protecting our coastline is vital to safeguarding our tourism industry, ensuring food security and supporting our local economy.

You have just completed your Masters at the University of Oxford. Can you share your experience?

It was an absolute dream! Besides the intense classes where I was encouraged to critique everything, the fantastic libraries with access to literature on virtually anything, theatre and musical performances every other day, I also had opportunities to meet experts in diverse fields. Being at Oxford has been incredibly challenging, rewarding and fun. The Master’s programme has developed my academic skill set, built my knowledge on ecological issues, introduced me to a global network of people, and most importantly given me some incredible friends. I am truly grateful to the Oxford India Centre for the Oxford-Indira Gandhi Graduate Scholarship through which I was able to fund my Masters. These scholarships are open to any Indian student, regardless of their economic background to support their time at Oxford. Please apply!

With your life ahead of you, you must have many hopes and dreams. What do you aspire for yourself and Goa?

I hope that years from now we still have vibrant coral reefs, lush mangrove forests, beautiful beaches, resilient coastal communities and that essential piece of fish in our curry. This is the Goa I know and love and I want to ensure it always stays this way.

What message do you have for Goan students and youth?

I think young people in Goa are intelligent, well educated and genuinely care about Goa. We need educational institutions, businesses and the Government to step in and encourage enterprise in the State. Goa is an incredible place to live in, and we should build capacity among young people in Goa so that they can stay here and work in a field they are passionate about. An example of this is the Global Shapers Panjim Hub, which is made up of people who care about Goa and are working towards solving its social and environmental issues. In a similar way, I would encourage more people to find an issue they care about and work towards resolving it. There’s so much you can do!