ENVIRONMENT-INDIA: Fishing Trawlers Spell Death for Sea Turtles

  • by Malini Shankar* – IPS/IFEJ (puri, india)
  • Thursday, April 02, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The estuarine areas of the tributaries of Mahanadi – Debi Mouth, Ramchandi -- and the popular beaches of Astaranga and Beer Jehaniya are dotted with carcasses where turtle nurseries were meant to be protected. Beer Jehaniya, a popular picnic spot for tourists who want to witness the turtles laying eggs, has become a turtle mortuary.

Wildlife activists estimate that nearly 6,000 to 7,000 Olive Ridley turtles are killed by commercial trawler fisherfolk during the nesting season between November and May, in utter defiance of wildlife protection laws. Orissa is known to be among the last nesting places of Olive Ridley turtles in the world.

When the turtles get entangled in trawler nets, the fisherfolk do not bother to disentangle the gasping turtles. Instead they hack the turtles so they can save their nets. Most turtles drown, unable to surface to the air to breathe. After two days, the bloated, bloodied carcasses are washed ashore.

Fishing trawlers from neighbouring states and countries such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal in India and Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Indonesia add to the Olive Ridleys’ woes.

The Orissa forest department, unable to cope with the thousands of carcasses, would hastily bury the dead turtles, only to be dug up by dogs, jackals and other predators.

Unsustainable trawler fishing not only kills the Olive Ridley turtles. Also at stake is the livelihood of 22,871 traditional fishermen. A total of 84,699 people are dependent on these fishermen in Puri district alone.

"Trawler fishing will completely destroy fishing grounds. The eggs, small fishes and sensitive ecosystem will be destroyed; the fish stock will be depleted thanks to trawler fishing. Neither the state governments nor the central government has the political sagacity to protest against illegal trawler fishing by foreign trawlers," said T Peter, president of the Indian Federation of Fishermen. "India is importing fish from these very countries whose trawlers illegally trawl and destroy fish stock off Indian coastal waters."

Viswajit Mohanty of the Wildlife Society of Orissa said the total turtle deaths on the Orissa coast would be close to 10,000, with Puri district alone accounting for 3,000 to 4,000 of the total.

But B K Pattnaik, the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), contests the number of dead Olive Ridleys and is quick to point out that the 5,000 dead turtles washed ashore is only 0.1 percent of the total number of turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs in places such as Rushikulya and Gahirmatha. Pattnaik said the total number of turtles on Orissa’s coasts exceeds 500,000, although the two numbers he gives do not match.

This year, the mass nesting of turtle eggs occurred on Mar. 21. The forest staff claim to have counted 180,000 turtle eggs in Rushikulya and 216,000 in the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary.

Every winter, between November and May, Olive Ridley turtles come ashore to the exact location where they were born to lay their eggs. Some of these turtles have been tracked from almost 700 kilometres south of Sri Lanka, said B C Chowdhury of the Marine Ecosystem Management of the Wildlife Institute of India.

Chowdhury said the Orissa and Other Coastal State Fisheries Regulation Act, which prohibits mechanised boats and trawlers up to 5 km and 10 km, respectively, from the shoreline, is hardly enforced.

The Orissa Forest Department, the custodian of protected species listed in the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, lacks patrol boats to enforce the ban on trawler fishing. It even has to hire patrol boats from the fisheries department.

"We need better coordination. The Coast Guard and Navy have better infrastructure. Alternatively, if the fisheries department patrol boats are manned by forest officials and police constables, patrolling will be more effective," said Pattnaik.

The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau has a mandate to mitigate wildlife crime. But whether illegal trawler fishing constitutes wildlife crime remains a subject of debate for the authorities.

The government of Orissa has "woefully inadequate infrastructure" that has prevented it from enforcing measures that would protect the turtles, said Bijay Kabi of the Action for Protection of Wild Animals in Orissa, a field group of Wildlife Trust of India. "They do not have speedboats, armed men or even proper sea training."

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS - Inter Press Service and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development. (www.complusalliance.org). (END/IPS/AP/IP/MS/SG/ME/09)

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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