Trawling, Industry Threaten India Turtle Nesting
DEVI, India -- The scattered carcasses of dead turtles bake on the hot sand. Scraps of the white shells of turtle eggs surround a hole where stray dogs have dug up a nest.
Until a decade ago, this beach on India's east coast used to witness one of nature's most spectacular sights -- the mass nesting of tens of thousands of Olive Ridley turtles on a single night.
Not since 1995 has that happened. These days just a handful of turtles come to the beach at Devi to nest, and its status as one of three main nesting sites for the Olive Ridleys in India's coastal state of Orissa is under threat.
Orissa is one of the few remaining mass nesting sites for the Olive Ridleys in the world. But the situation on its other beaches is not much better, with turtles falling victim to government neglect and rapid industrialisation.
Fewer turtles than normal arrived this year at the nearby beaches of Gahirmatha, where a marine sanctuary has failed to check illegal fishing by trawlers, and the construction of a large port nearby presents a major environmental threat.
No mass nesting has yet been seen on the southern beach of Rushikulya, and time is running out if that beach is not to witness its third "no-show" in just over a decade.
At the same time more than 8,000 carcasses have been washed ashore since November, most caught and drowned in the nets of trawlers fishing too close to the shore, conservationists say.
"Because of an increase in human activity in the sea and along the coast, the very survival of Orissa's sea turtles is at stake," said Biswajit Mohanty of the Society of Orissa.
Greenpeace says more than 120,000 turtles have been washed up dead on Orissa's shores in the past 12 years, most caught in the nets of trawlers which the law says should not be there. Total deaths may have been significantly higher.
The trawlers also scatter the turtles as they gather in offshore waters to nest, and rampant trawling is thought to be a major reason for the demise of Devi.
But although turtles enjoy the same level of protection under Indian law as tigers, Mohanty said there was simply no enforcement or political will to protect them. A single gill net was found to contain 265 dead animals a few years ago.
"Boats are seized, nets are seized, but then they are released after a couple of months," he said. "Not a single conviction has taken place."
Other factors are at work too.
The forest department may unwittingly have contributed to the demise of Devi when they planted casuarina trees on the beach in a bid to protect nearby villages from cyclones. That narrowed the beach and made much of it unsuitable for nesting.
Natural erosion of the beach at Rushikulya, steepening the incline, may have discouraged landings this year.
But at Devi, traditional fishermen hate the trawlers every bit as much as Mohanty.
They say their catch has fallen sharply since trawlers came and is worth perhaps half what it was five years ago, while more expensive fish like pomfret and hilsa have all but vanished.
They eagerly show Reuters how easily their flimsy nets rip, showing they present no danger to the turtles, unlike the multi-fibre nets of the industrial boats.
"We want the turtles to remain, because wherever there are turtles there are fish," said 32-year-old Jagabondhu Behra.
This is evidence, Greenpeace says, that it is not a question of pitting people against turtles. Some areas like Gahirmatha need to be protected to allow fish stocks room to recover, but in other areas a balance can be struck.
In 2004 the Supreme Court recommended that trawlers be kept at least 20 km (12 miles) away from nesting beaches, but traditional fishermen be allowed closer to shore. The rules, which strike a balance between conservation and livelihood concerns, are supported by Greenpeace but ignored by trawlermen.
"There is no reason to subscribe to the defeatist attitude that the problem cannot be tackled unless either turtles or fishermen are sacrificed," said Sanjiv Gopal of Greenpeace.
Challenged on the subject, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said he was unaware that laws meant to protect turtles were not being enforced.
The response failed to impress campaigners who say they have been petitioning him on the subject for years.
Yet there is another and potentially even more serious threat to the Olive Ridleys' future in Orissa.
The state, one of India's poorest, is rushing to industrialise and exploit its vast mineral wealth.
Plans are advanced to open seven new ports, including what could become the biggest on the east coast at Dhamra, just 12 km (7 miles) from the Gahirmatha sanctuary.
Oil exploration has also begun off the coast, before studies have been completed of the effects on turtle migration.
This year just 140,000 turtles nested at Gahirmatha, Mohanty said, compared to 230,000 the year before.
"We are very convinced turtles will eventually abandon the nesting beach," he said. "They are never going to adapt to that level of disruption."