Over the past week, more than a hundred Oliver Ridley turtles have washed up dead on the beaches of Chennai, and many more are believed to be floating dead on Bay of Bengal.
The endangered Oliver Ridley turtles, well-known for their coordinated nesting in large numbers, generally make their annual trip up the Bay of Bengal during the breeding months of December and January. However, the use of trawlers and gill nets have historically resulted in sweeping up these sea turtles and drowning them. They are also increasingly consuming plastic waste in the ocean.
Even as the nesting season begins, turtle conservationists are alarmed at the rate of turtle deaths this year. They allege that the Fisheries Department of Tamil Nadu has failed in its role to monitor the usage of trawlers and gill nets.
Illegal fishing methods
Trawling is method of fishing that involves actively dragging or pulling fishing nets through the water. In September 2016, the Tamil Nadu government announced the “prohibition of fishing by any kind of fishing vessels in a radius of five nautical miles [approximately nine km] around potential nesting and breeding sites of sea turtles in the coastal areas under Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing Regulation Act 1983.” Despite these mechanized boats being banned from use within five nautical miles of the coast, they continue to function along the coasts with impunity.
Speaking to TNM, Supraja Dharini of the Tree Foundation that works to protect the marine turtle population says, “When we spoke to Chennai Chengai Singaravelar Trawl Boat Owners Welfare Association, they said that the number of deaths due to gill net fishing that has increased. There has been a tremendous increase in gill net fishing. Gill nets are like a wall in the ocean. It will fish anything and everything that comes in the way. All sizes, all species of sea turtles are caught in the gillnets.” Gillnets are more effective in catching fishes.
Speaking to TNM, Arun, a coordinator for the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network, said, “Gillnets drop straight down. They extend up to 3 or 4 kilometres. And the turtles that come to nest get caught in that. There have been reports of 30 turtles caught in a single net. The gill nets and trawlers together are responsible for this.”
Turtle Excluder Devices not used?
In 2015, turtle conservationists conducted trials with ten fishermen for the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TED). These devices would enable turtles to escape through its vent so that only fishes are caught.
Supraja says, “The court had asked the Fisheries Department to implement the use of Turtle Excluder Device. But nothing happened. Fishermen are going as usual for fishing.”
“The turtles congregate five kilometres from the shore. Since they are air breathing reptiles, they need come up to the surface every 40 to 45 minutes to breathe. So, when they get caught in these trawl fishing nets, which are dragged for one hour to three hours inside the ocean, they suffocate and drown. So, we did the TED trials with the trawl fishermen in 2015 and in 2016, we gave them 10 TED to the trawl fishermen. In all the trials, the turtles have escaped safely, but no one uses them,” Supraja says.
A senior official in the Fisheries Department says the TEDs are not used because the catch is lower, and fishermen face losses. “To my knowledge, nobody in India is using TED. The research institute designed the TED. It’s a small apparatus that has to be attached to the net. They have only conducted trials. The fishermen have rejected it at the trial stage itself because the escaping percentage is higher (than regular catch). The researchers and officials are in the process to reduce the percentage of escape.”
Failure of the fisheries department?
Both Arun and Supraja lay much of the blame for dying turtles at the doorstep of the fisheries department. Slamming the implementation of the fishing ban during the nesting season, Arun says, “There is no implementing agency. Fisheries is not seeing its role as a regulator. The forest department which is responsible for turtles has no say in the sea. So, who is responsible? Four to five years back, it was never this bad. So what practice has changed recently that is causing this?”
Supraja who has working to help educate fisherfolk communities to be aware of the effects of trawler use on turtles, asks, “Since 2015, we’ve been working with the Indian Coast Guard, Marine Department, Forest Department and Fisheries Department. We are trying to network with them and get them to work together for better enforcement. Fisheries department says they don’t have any facilities to go in the ocean. When the marine police apprehend anybody who is violating, they have to hand them over to the fisheries department.”
A senior official of the Fisheries Department however says that fishermen cannot be entirely blamed, since fewer boats went out to the ocean due to Ockhi. “We have to examine why the number of turtle deaths have been high this year despite the reduced number of boats going out to fish. It could also be due to the turtles consuming the plastic in the sea which causes them to bloat,” he says.
Jayakumar, a trawler fisherman, says, "The water is not good here. There are many companies as well as three harbours. Ships go and come. All the waste ends up in the ocean. The turtles eat the paper and plastic and die. The fishermen worship the turtle as a God, so there won't be any harm to the turtle from a fisherman.”
While the entire nesting season last year saw the death of over 200 hundred turtles, this year the number is 100 within the first few weeks.
“There should be a strong rule that when anybody is seen violating the fisheries regulation act, the fisheries department should just cancel their license of the trawl boat. If they cancel the license and stop giving them the subsidy, then they will be frightened and they will not violate the law. If there’s no penalty, they won’t bother,” says Supraja.