Every year, between the months of November and April, the offshore waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean witness a flurry of action as olive ridley turtles make their way to beaches along India’s southeastern coast to nest.
Using Earth’s magnetic field, this ancient species of ocean wanderers journey several thousand kilometres to the beaches of Odisha, one of the largest mass-nesting sites in the world. On their way, thousands of turtles end up nesting on the beaches of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh as well.
The olive ridley turtle is one of the five varieties of sea turtles found in Indian waters. They are listed as a ‘vulnerable’ species in the ‘Red List’ maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They are also protected under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Every January, the Indian media reports on the deaths of these turtles, quoting various stakeholders pointing fingers at each other. Conservationists mostly blame commercial mechanised fisheries – trawlers and big gillnetters – for these deaths. According to them, the turtles get caught in these giant nets, don’t make it to the surface to breathe and drown. Their bodies subsequently wash ashore, where they are discovered.
After one January 2015 report, the chief justice of the Madras high court filed a “suo motu PIL, directing the Secretary to Government, Fisheries Department, and the Commissioner of Fisheries, to take action against erring fishermen and ensure safe living of sea animals including sea turtles.”
Following this, Tamil Nadu’s department of fisheries issued a government order (GO) in September 2016, identifying over a 100 potential olive ridley nesting sites, prohibiting fishing using mechanised vessels, motorised crafts and any mechanised techniques within fives nautical miles of these sites for four months (January to April).
The GO caused a furore amongst small-scale fisherfolk, most of whom use small motorised fibre boats to navigate an area of radius 5-12 nautical miles. The period from January to April is also an important time for them to earn a livelihood.
The order has not been implemented thus far.
The turtle god
The 1,076-km coastline of Tamil Nadu is dotted with over 600 fishing villages.
“We have a particular deity called Kutti Amma [Tamil for ‘small mother’], which takes the form of a turtle,” Saravanan, a small-scale fisherman based in Urur Kuppam, Chennai, said.
“Whenever we are deploying our nets, we first perform a ritual to ensure that turtles don’t get caught in the nets. If at all they are caught, we first cut the nets and try to let it go. But if the turtle dies, we have a self imposed ban from the business for the day. We let the whole catch of that day go and come back home. We perform a puja and apologise to the God and clean the net where the turtle was caught,” he explained.“This practice has been a tradition for many years in northern Tamil Nadu, from Pulicat to Kadalur.”
Their cultural association has taught them to respect turtles. Turtle eggs, however, have never been part of that culture. Saravanan says they used to play with them and eat them when they were young. He recalls having attended a lecture in school organised by Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) on the importance of protecting the eggs as a young teenager. It was only after that lecture did he begin to understand the cycle of life of these turtles. “It was a life changing experience for me,” says the 34-year-old.
The SSTCN is a group of volunteers who have gathered under this banner for 30 years. They work on Chennai’s beaches to spread awareness of the olive ridley turtles. They also patrol a 14-km stretch between Neelankarai and the Marina beach during the turtles’ nesting season, to spot turtle nests and bring them to a hatchery for safekeeping. They also keep count on the number of dead turtles they find during the walk.
Saravanan has been involved in conducting turtle awareness programmes with various non-profit organisations in the state. He currently works at the Coastal Resource Centre, a Chennai-based outfit that supports coastal communities. He is also a member of his village panchayat. “So we are happy that the administrative authorities are taking measures to conserve olive ridleys, but when they do things like issuing this government order, it directly affects our livelihood and creates a sense of bitterness,” he said.
Tamil Nadu’s non-profit organisations have noted a steady rise in the number of dead olive ridleys found washed up on the state’s shores.
V. Arun, a coordinator at SSTCN, says that it was only in the last seven or eight years that the number of dead turtles has touched the hundreds (across as many years). “Before that, it would not go beyond 30. Last year, in the entire nesting season, we counted 217 dead turtles on our patrol. This year, since January 1, we have counted 221 turtle carcasses. And the main nesting season begins in February,” he said.
Commercial fishing operations using trawlers and mechanised gill-nets are usually blamed for the deaths.
Pooja Kumar, a coordinator at the Coastal Resource Centre, has a slightly different take. “There is a whole lot of garbage and other kinds of coastal pollution in the near shore waters. The causes could be multifold, but there is little or no investigation,” she said.
Since olive ridley turtles are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, people are not allowed to cut up their dead bodies without involving the state’s forest department. “We are trying to get veterinary doctors involved and get the [forest department’s] permission to do necropsies on dead turtles we find during our walks,” said Shravan Krishnan, a volunteer at SSTCN.
“We have seen that injury and death due to effluence and plastic ingestion constitutes about 3% of the affected turtle population,” said Supraja Dharini, founder of the TREE Foundation, a community-driven conservation non-profit founded in 2002. “The rest are all caused by nets. Drowning happens in trawl nets, gill nets and nets set for ray fish. Some survivors may have their flippers cut off or heads chopped off,” she explained.
The outfit conducts turtle conservation programmes in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.
According to a study published in January 1997, 5,282 turtle deaths recorded along Odisha’s 480-km-long coastline between December 1993 and May 1994 were attributable to incidental capture in offshore fishing nets. A survey of fishing activities in the region also revealed a higher number of turtle deaths in areas where trawling was more common.
In February 2014, the TREE Foundation documented the mass death of over 800 turtles along the Andhra Pradesh coast. Their members also found that over 40 trawlers had been out at sea in the area a couple days prior.“Besides that, we did not witness a single turtle death in the 2005 turtle season, immediately after the tsunami had struck the Bay of Bengal coast. That’s because no trawlers went out to the sea till May 2005,” she said.
While there is a correlation, a report or a study establishing a causal link has been missing. “Mostly, the deaths are assumed to be caused by interactions with the fisheries operations,” Kumar said. “But there is no mechanism to look at the cause. The forest department of Tamil Nadu does not do that,” adding that they “only” note down the numbers and “then bury them”.
In a 2011 documentary called ‘The Killing Fields’, on the plight of the olive ridley turtles in Odisha, Shekar Dattatri, a filmmaker and naturalist, described mechanised gill nets as “walls of death”. These drift nets are placed vertically in the water with the help of floatlines – lines made of nylon that float in the water and from which the nets are suspended – and stretch for more than 3 km. They catch anything that enters the nets, which are made of single or multiple strands of synthetic fibres. This is a popular technique for catching tuna – but turtles also get caught, entangled and lose their flippers in the struggle to break free.
Mechanised trawling has been used in Tamil Nadu since the 1960s, originally to harvest shrimp for export. Shrimp are near-shore creatures. The trawler net, is a cone-shaped net, towed by one or two boats at the bottom, or in mid-water. The net body ends in a bag. The net is cast into the sea and dragged along the sea bed for over four hours, trapping everything in its path. Olive ridley turtles get caught in these nets and eventually drown. The industry has grown four-fold in the last six decades, and fishing harbours like Kasimedu in north Chennai are overloaded with trawlers.
A turtle excluder device (TED) is a specialised bit of hardware that allows a captured sea turtle to escape when trapped in a net. The TED is attached at the end of the net, with a metal grid in the middle and a flap opening above the grid. When any large organism enters, it hits the grid and escapes through the flap. Scientists have noted that about 10% of the catch could be lost when TEDs are used.
However, in February 2002, at a TED demonstration workshop held in Paradip, Odisha, trawler owners got together and stated that they experienced a 20% catch loss – an unacceptable figure. They demanded that the TEDs be better designed to minimise catch loss.
In January 2015, the TREE Foundation conducted a demonstration and workshop for Chennai’s trawler associations, where TEDs produced by the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Visakhapatnam, were tried out. According to one report, they observed a catch loss of 2-3% and a 100% turtles escape rate.
Dharini said, “If we want to protect the turtles, we have to control the commercial fisheries and make TEDs mandatory for trawlers.”
On September 30, 2015, the Tamil Nadu fisheries department issued an amendment to the state’s Marine Fishing Regulation Rules, 1983. The update included the following clause:,“(d) No trawl net shall be used without fixing Turtle Excluder Device (TED) before the Cod end, during the specified period as may be notified by the authorised officer.”
Trawler industry woes
Kasimedu is a major fishing harbour in Chennai, under the administrative control of the city’s Port Trust. The space is teeming with rows upon rows of colourful big, medium and small boats. Officials at the Kasimedu fisheries department say there are at least a thousand trawler boats and about 600 small boats.“One can’t put a cap on the number of boats one can buy. Do you do that for vehicles on roads? If you have money, you buy what you want,” said one official requesting anonymity – while admitting that the harbour holds more boats than it can handle.
When asked if the trawlers had been given TEDs, he said that their owners have asked him to show concrete evidence that turtles are dying because of them, while at the same time saying that if they found a turtle caught, they release it.Posing as an independent researcher, this reporter spoke to one of the owners who said he had been in the business for 35 years. According to him, fish catch has seen a dramatic reduction in the last few years. “I go 40 km into the sea to catch mackerel and red snapper. Some 90% of the mackerel has vanished. I used to get 200 kg of catch four years ago. Now I get barely 40 kg,” he said.
He blames fast mechanised boats. “Our mechanised boats have a speed limit of 150 HP, but there are several that have more than 400 HP speed.” As defined by the Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1983, a ‘mechanised fishing vessel’ is a boat fit with an engine of 15-120 HP and being 8-15 m long; anything bigger is classified as a deep-sea fishing vessel. “This scrapes the entire surface of the ocean bed, leaving no breeding or resting ground for the fish. We are disturbing the natural ecosystem,” he said. He also blames about 200 mechanised trawlers functioning within three nautical miles, against the rules of the same act, for the destruction. “Apart from affecting the livelihood of the small-scale fishers, it is also a sure shot way of killing turtles.”
He said he was the first trawler to use the TED device when a workshop on its advantages had been organised by the TREE foundation in 2015. He doesn’t use it anymore. “When we were getting 70 kg without TEDs, and lost 5 kg with TEDs, that was okay. But now the catch itself is reduced, so we don’t use TEDs.” He did suggest that trawlers could use the devices during the nesting season (December to February).
V.P. Dandapani, the director of fisheries in the Tamil Nadu government, confirmed that TEDs had yet to be implemented. “We are planning on redoing the design of the TED,” he said over a phone conversation. “We need to change the aperture and maybe attached another pouch to minimise the catch loss.”
He added that the fisheries department had been conducting turtle regular awareness programmes in all coastal districts of Tamil Nadu for five or six years, prior to the nesting season. While the TREE foundation and SSTCN have called for regulating trawling more strictly, enforcing the use of TEDs and establishing ‘no-fishing zones’ (especially near estuaries), Kumar called for better research on the part of state authorities. “There is just not enough data out there. There has to be a regular census of the fisherfolk, better mapping of the fishing villages, and better methods to find out about turtle deaths. Right now, they are only recorded on the beaches. What about surveillance in harbour areas?”
Scientists also suggest alternative fishing methods – such as using gillnets fit with LEDs to signal to turtles and thus reduce by-catch.
“In an ideal world a ban on trawling will definitely have an impact not just on reducing by-catch … but also in the recovery of a wide array of bottom fauna and help the ocean floor recover from years of trawling,” according to M. Muralidharan of the Dakshin Foundation. “But as has been seen in the past for many issues, a blanket ban without providing alternative options is bound to fail because it fails to address the rights of the large number of trawl workers and their livelihoods – as well as fill the void of income generated to the government from the catch that is hauled.”
Supriya Vohra is an independent journalist based in Goa.