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Icons of marine conservation
India has been both a pioneer and a laggard in protecting seascapes and oceanscapes
Whales and dolphins rival pandas and tigers as global conservation icons. Sea turtles might have, at one time, not been regarded as cute as charismatic mammals, but more countries have conservation projects on sea turtle than on any other such group. Research on and conservation of marine species is seen as a new frontier, while the interface between marine conservation and fisheries management remains a challenge. In the expansion of the conservation arena from landscapes to seascapes and oceanscapes, the Indian subcontinent has been both a pioneer and a laggard.
Sea turtle conservation in India dates to the programmes initiated in the Olive Ridley mass nesting beaches of Odisha and solitary beaches of Chennai in the early 1970s. In Odisha, conservationists countered threats to turtles with on-ground and media campaigns that elicited global support. Famously, then prime minister Indira Gandhi provided coast guard support in patrolling offshore waters, eventually leading to a decline in turtle fishing. Concomitantly, increasing trawl fishing led to a rise in incidental capture and mortality: more than 100,000 Olive Ridleys perished in the last decade. A number of community-centric conservation campaigns have tried to address these issues. Part of the new wave of conservation approaches, the Orissa Marine Resources Conservation Consortium is trying to bring together fisher communities and conservationists towards a common goal of marine resource conservation. All the while, the threat of development looms large with more ports planned.
The conservation movement in Chennai, that eventually led to the now two-decade-old students’ conservation organisation there, has spawned a number of small sea turtle and marine conservation organisations around the country, at least one in each coastal state. Their impact at the local scale is extraordinary. The groups are also united under a recently formed national network, the Turtle Action Group.
Conservation of other marine species has been much less organised. Some of the groups mentioned above have worked on other species, notably whale sharks in Gujarat. Whale shark conservation received attention for a period, including through documentaries and media campaigns, resulting in their listing in Schedule 1 of the Wild Life Protection Act in 2001 slowing of the decline in their number. Once they were disappearing by several hundreds annually.
When other sharks were similarly listed, there was widespread protest from fishing communities, leading to a delisting of species. The problem in such listings is that many fisheries are non-target ones. This leads to the broader question of fisheries management and regulation, as well as issues of bycatch. They have not received enough attention in India. Whales and dolphins may be icons elsewhere in the world, but have not received a great deal of attention in India. Their status in offshore waters is not well known, nor are the threats to their populations.
In Chilika, fishing communities and the Irrawady dolphin appear to have developed a mutualistic relationship. The communities benefit from dolphins driving fish into their nets, and also in recent years from dolphin-based tourism. Yet there are various threats, including from tourism-based activity. Dugongs have disappeared from most areas along the mainland where they were earlier reported, such as the Gulf of Mannar. They are still sighted in some parts of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but appear to be considerably depleted in numbers.
Should marine protection follow paradigms of terrestrial conservation? Should effort be devoted to creating people-free, use-free enclaves? Seas and coasts have been used for millenia; the cultures and institutions that govern them have evolved over time. Is it wise or even feasible to apply dogmatic conservation approaches to seascapes? In fact, the most powerful coastal movements in India are community movements for local livelihoods. However, no-fishing zones (especially when set up with support of communities) can be highly beneficial to marine resources and livelihoods. Marine conservation will benefit most by integrating modern research with community involvement.