The total number of olive ridley turtle deaths within just three weeks of its nesting season has reached alarming numbers. Activists tell TNM that 193 dead turtles have been washed ashore as of Friday and the numbers are expected to increase further.
Conservationists who have been monitoring the nesting of the endangered olive ridleys for years now are shocked by the death toll this year. In 2017, the entire nesting season saw 217 deaths. But now, with over three months left for the season to end, the numbers have observers worried.
“Only 24 nests have been sighted by our volunteers so far and if the turtle population goes down, it could have terrible effects on the marine environment. These turtles eat jellyfish that in turn eat fish eggs. So a reduction in turtle population would mean a drop in the fish population as well,” explains Shravan Krishnan of the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN).
The endangered olive ridley turtles, well-known for their coordinated nesting in large numbers, mostly breed between January and March in southern India. After nesting, the female turtles swim ashore to lay eggs by digging pits in the sand. The hatchlings emerge 45 to 50 days after nesting. The female turtles, however, do not wait to see their eggs hatch and return to the sea.
A forest officer on the condition of anonymity told TNM that one of the main reasons for turtle deaths is the use of gill nets by fishermen.
“The turtles get caught in the net and are suffocated to death. It is the Fisheries department that needs to take immediate action here,” says the officer.
The Fisheries department, however, says it has done its part by banning bottom trawling, purse seine and pair nets.
The department director VP Thandapani told ToI that the government has introduced the turtle excluding device (TED) to ensure turtles are not harmed during fishing.
“When this device is used along with the net, a good portion of the fish that are caught escape through the gap along with the turtles, complain fishermen. So we have asked the Forest department whether it is possible to add a pouch in the device so that the fish can stay, when the turtles escape,” he said.
The director, however, alleges that fishermen have failed to use the device as instructed.
But the city’s fisherfolk claim that the blame for the turtle deaths cannot fall squarely on their shoulders.
“Mechanised boats have hardly gone out into the sea in the last month because the weather is not accommodative. So the Fisheries department needs to stop blaming us,” says K Bharathi, president of the South Indian Fishermen Welfare Association.
“We have complained about the challenges we face with TED several times and nothing has been done about that. There are also other factors, such as degradation of the environment after the oil spill and increasing development work on beaches. The government just finds it easy to blame us,” he adds.