Death trap for turtles

Over the past several years, sea turtles have suffered mass mortality along the Indian coastline, largely due to being captured as incidental catch in fishing nets. We bring you an update.

It was way back in 2001 when I was conducting surveys on sea turtles along the coast of Goa and Maharashtra, that I came across a dead turtle on one of the secluded beaches in my study. The carcass was washed ashore and was comparatively intact and fresh. On close observation, no visible damage was observed, which left me with the question—how did this turtle die? Some local fisher folk mentioned that turtles sometimes get stranded in fishing nets. They also added that they release these turtles if they are alive. Eventually I had a chance to interact with and read publications of prominent sea turtle experts in India, Dr. Karthik Shanker and Dr. Bivash Pandav. In one of the presentations by Dr. Pandav, I was shocked to see a slide in which hundreds of sea turtles were stranded in fishing nets on the Odisha coast. This was clearly turning out to be one the main reasons how sea turtles in these parts met their deaths.

India is blessed with a rich diversity of flora and fauna. The commonest species of sea turtle in India is Olive Ridley (Lepidochelysolivacea). One of the biggest‘extravaganzas’, which happens on the coast of Odisha is the mass nesting of Olive Ridley sea turtles that mostly occurs from December to February. To reach their breeding grounds in Odisha these sea turtles migrate in large numbers along the Indian Ocean. In a span of about three to four days, thousands of Olive Ridleys visit two or three mass nesting sites, where the females come on shore to lay eggs. After a span of 45–55 days, the hatchlings emerge and enter the sea to start a new life. The sea turtles are truly aquatic reptiles as they spend their entire life in water, except while laying eggs.

One of the biggest threats to their survival is from incidental strangulation by fishing nets. Reptiles need to breach air for respiration, which they do by coming to the surface. Once caught in the fishing nets, they suffocate and eventually die. Most of the time, some carcasses wash ashore and make the news but many more remain behind in the sea. Several studies on the east coast of India, notably from Odisha, projected that every year, thousands of Olive Ridley sea turtles die in these waters. The finding was based on the number of carcasses of sea turtles encountered on the coast.This is really of grave concern as we are losing valuable populations of females and males at alarming rates.

Olive Ridley sea turtles have a very slow growth rate and they have the tendency to visit the same nesting sites for breeding. With large scale modifications and modern and mechanized fishing practices, their population faces a drastic decline. Although there are restrictions and norms for fishing activities in mass nesting sites,the threats still persist. Today, ignoring a dead turtle on the coast is not just an ecological loss, but a warning sign that we are losing some of our pristine diversity to indifference and insensitivity.

These images have been sent in by Saevus reader, Vinit, and they illustrate the grave plight of sea turtles along the Andhra coast. This particular beach is called Kalinga, and it is approximately 15 km from Rishikonda beach, Andhra Pradesh.

Image courtesy: Vinit

This article was first published in the 2014 February edition of Saevus magazine.

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