Dead turtles aren’t a new story. Every breeding season, from November to May, the media reports scores of dead Olive Ridleys scattered along the eastern coast, particularly at the mass nesting sites of Odisha. But what makes this carnage a vulgar certainty year after year is a damning story that needs to be told.
In 1983, then director of Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute EG Silas had warned that “unless urgent action is taken in regulating or adopting new modifications in fishing gear, the nest beaches along the Odisha coast may turn to be the largest graveyard of Olive Ridleys in the world.” Three decades on, the grim prediction is still playing out.
By the early 1980s, commercial harvesting of turtle eggs and turtles for meat was on the wane. Prior to Independence, local landlords in Odisha collected an anda-kar (tax) from turtle egg hunters. Between 1947 and 1975, the state issued permits for egg harvesting. Mechanised fishing during the ’70s caused as many of as 50,000 turtles to end up at Kolkata’s fish markets every season. Following the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and subsequent interventions by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi who engaged the Coast Guard for turtle protection, the trade stopped by the mid-1980s.
By then, turtles were facing a new danger — mechanised trawling. Since they need to surface every 30 minutes to breathe, getting stuck in nets that trawled underwater meant certain death. But long before conservation rules were framed for the species that enjoys, on paper, the maximum protection accorded under Schedule I of the Wildlife Act, help came from unexpected quarters.
Ridleys congregate in large numbers for mating close to the shoreline, in the same waters where artisanal fishermen operate. In 1982, the state enacted the Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Act (OMFRA) to protect the livelihood of artisanal fishermen by prohibiting trawlers from operating within 5 km of the coastline. The Ridleys could well have been saved from trawler nets if only the restriction had been implemented.
Conservationists fighting a losing battle against the trawlers should have found a natural ally in the artisanal fishermen. Instead, they antagonised these communities by trying to deny them access to nesting beaches and impose restrictions on artisanal fishing. Being outsiders, these migrant fishermen from Bangladesh and Andhra Pradesh had little clout to take on the powerful Odiya trawling lobby. Their internal division on Bengali-Andhraite line didn’t help either. By the time conservationists realised the importance of uniting them against trawling, the task had become complicated. Loss of livelihood had already forced many of the fishermen to take up jobs as deckhands with the very trawlers that evicted them from the waters.
Since the 5-km embargo stipulated in OMFRA remained only on paper, nobody expected fresh regulations, issued in 1997, to stop all mechanised fishing within 20 km of the three mass nesting areas of Gahirmatha coast, Devi River mouth and Rushikulya beach, to have any impact. They did not. Then, OMFRA was amended again in 2003, this time to make Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) mandatory for all trawlers operating in Odisha. This flap-door device is used internationally to allow turtles and dolphins that accidentally enter the net to escape unharmed. But with turtles, around 10 percent of the fish catch also escapes. So, in spite of free distribution of hundreds of TEDs, not one is in use anywhere on the Odisha coast.
Forcing trawlers and other mechanised boats to use TEDs and stay away from waters legally out of bounds for them requires patrolling infrastructure. The Coast Guard cannot operate in shallow waters very close to the shoreline and the fisheries and forest departments that are supposed to do the patrolling do not have any speedboats. During 1998-2003, a few NGOs supported the forest department with patrolling boats and fuel. But after a few altercations between mechanised fishers and forest guards that cost a few lives on both sides, patrolling was effectively given up.
In 2003 and ’04, the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court pointed out that Rs 1 crore obtained from IndianOil for turtle protection was lying unutilised for four years and another Rs 1 crore was given by the agriculture ministry to the fisheries department to buy fast patrol boats. The CEC instructed the state to procure two fast boats for each of the three turtle-nesting areas. Nine years later, no boat is in sight. Other recommendations of the CEC included removal of casuarina plantations and installation of turtle-friendly lighting at all commercial and residential units near the three mass nesting sites.
After a cyclone in 1971, on the advice of Swedish experts, casuarina plants were imported from Australia as a natural storm barrier. But the weak trees gave way like matchsticks when subsequent cyclones, particularly the mighty one in 1999, hit Odisha. Yet, the forest department continued planting the trees, says National Board for Wildlife member Biswajit Mohanty. On most beaches, Ridleys now find little open sand to dig up when they climb beyond the high tideline to lay eggs. While the CEC’s order for removal of these useless plantations is gathering dust, boulders are now being dumped indiscriminately on beaches as storm barriers; burying some of the world’s best nesting sites.
When Ridley hatchlings emerge from the eggs, they are biologically tuned to move towards the glowing night sea horizon. Artificial lights distract the hatchlings from the sea and to eventual death. At times, artificial beach lights even confuse adult females that return without laying eggs. The CEC instructed the state to identify all such light sources near mass nesting sites and take corrective steps. Nothing has moved yet.
Meanwhile, the Dhamra port came up within 15 km of Gahirmatha in spite of objections from the CEC. After the Bombay Natural History Society refused to be part of a mitigation plan in 2005 because the project proponents did not agree to suspend work pending the study, the International Union for Conservation of Nature partnered with the Dhamra Port Company Limited without even consulting key members of its own Marine Turtle Specialist Group, such as Kartik Shanker and Romulus Whitaker, on the project.
Like pandas or tigers, turtles easily make for an emotive cause. The Ridleys of Odisha have garnered huge attention and funds at home and abroad. There has been no dearth of laws, or even indigenous technology innovations such as the TED priced at only Rs 2,000, developed by the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology. And yet, we lose 10-30,000 Ridleys every year in the fishing nets that are not meant to capture them.
Do we blame the trawler owners who refuse to spare a 5-km-ring of fishing waters or lose 10 percent of their catch to TEDs? Do we hold the state responsible for forfeiting the responsibility of enforcing its own laws? Or are the conservationists at fault for isolating the artisanal fishermen whose livelihood interests coincide with the Ridley’s survival needs? After three decades, it’s a shame we don’t have the answer.