Wildlife & Biodiversity

Why are Olive Ridley sea turtles dying in large numbers on Odisha’s coast?

Non-compliance with 2-decade-old orders by CEC constituted by Supreme Court likely cause

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Monday 26 February 2024
Coast guard officials seize sea turtles from a trawler at Gahiramatha. Photo by special arrangement / Ashis Senapati

The primary cause of the deaths of a large number of Olive Ridley sea turtles along the Odisha coast each year is likely the failure to comply with a two-decade-old order issued by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), which was constituted by the Supreme Court.

CEC members — Chairman PV Jayakrishnan, editor for Sanctuary magazine Bittu Sahgal, and retired principal chief conservator of forests, Tamil Nadu VR Chitrapu — submitted a report in 2004 following an SC order. The members visited Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary in Kendrapara district, Rushikulya beach in Ganjam district and Devi beach in Puri district regarding the protection of Olive Ridley sea turtles in Odisha coast.

During their visit, the committee members spoke with state government officials, coast guard officials, representatives from fishing communities and trawler owner associations, turtle researchers and conservationists. 

Read more: Olive Ridley nesting begins: Over 500,000 turtles lay eggs in 4 days at Odisha’s Gahirmatha sanctuary

The objective of the CEC visit was to assess compliance with the directions issued in its interim order dated March 7, 2003 for protecting Olive Ridley sea turtles in Odisha.

The CEC order mandated the prohibition of fishing trawlers within a 20-kilometre radius from the high tide line at the mass nesting sites of Gahirmatha, Devi river mouth and Rushikulya, from November 1 to May 31. Furthermore, all boats are required to prominently display their registration, licence number and name, ensuring visibility from both air and sea for efficient inspection by coast guard vessels and helicopters.

Additionally, boats must carry a laminated waterproof chart, certified by the captain and countersigned by the local fisheries officer. This chart should provide information regarding the permitted number of nets, types of nets and length of nets (specifically for gill nets) that the boat carries or intends to use, the order said.

However, the state government implemented a fishing ban only within a 20-kilometre radius from the coast in Gahirmatha. In contrast, in Rushikulya and Devi, authorities have not yet enforced a fishing ban within the specified distance. 

Biswajit Mohanty, the secretary of the Wildlife Society of Odisha and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, alleged that many fishermen continue to use prohibited fishing nets in the sea without intervention from fisheries and forest officials.

Read more: Conducive climate, beach this year: In February, large number of Olive Ridley turtles expected to lay eggs in Rushikulya

Mohanty alleged that approximately 200,000 deceased turtles have been discovered along the Odisha coast since 2000. He emphasised that if a substantial portion of the adult population has been lost and there is a notable impact on the recruitment of smaller size classes within the population, it could lead to a decline in the average size of the turtle population.

According to the CEC report, the collection of prawn seedlings by traditional communities employing cloth or fine mesh nets along the shore, as well as the discharge of toxic pesticides and sediments from paddy fields into national park and sanctuary areas, are contributing to the destruction of fish diversity. 

The report also highlighted concerns of pollutants originating from a fertiliser factory in Paradip and Jayashree Chemicals at Ganjam. Furthermore, pollution from Paradip port and vessels travelling to and from the port poses a direct threat to the ecosystem, posing risks to the survival, conservation and protection of turtles.

Olive Ridleys, being carnivorous, consume crustaceans, fish, sea urchins, squid and jellyfish. While sea turtles may not extensively forage at their breeding grounds, the pervasive coastal pollution remains a potential threat to these creatures. 

The Paradip port, situated near the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, is identified as possibly the most polluted port town in the country. Numerous factories in close proximity to the sea discharge substantial volumes of untreated waste daily, including effluents from fertiliser plants and oil refineries. 

Hemant Rout, the secretary of Gahirmatha Marine Turtles and Mangrove Conservation Society, expressed concern, stating that the state government has yet to take action against these pollutant industries, factories and plants.

When approached, Puskar Behera, the Regional Officer of Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) in Paradip, stated the cause of turtle deaths is suffocation resulting from entanglement in trawlers’ fishing nets not fitted with turtle excluder device (TED). “Pollution is not the reason behind the death of turtles,” he said. 

Read more: Olive Ridley turtles are back on Mangaluru beaches!

CEC also noted that vessels deployed by government departments are typically old and incapable of matching the speeds of the fishing boats they are tasked with inspecting.

According to the CEC’s directive, the state government acquired two high-speed boats in 2016 to aid forest officials in safeguarding sea turtles at Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, said Pradosh Maharana, the forest range officer of the sanctuary. “Both boats were procured from Mumbai at a cost of Rs 3 crore each. Unfortunately, one of the boats became inoperative two years ago and the other experienced technical issues last year. As a result, both interceptor boats are currently idle, floating near the office of Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary,” he said.

The eco-friendly soundless speedy boats were equipped with foolproof safety mechanisms but are now gathering dust, Maharana added.

The CEC report also stated that if, during inspection at sea, any boat is found without a TED or if the escape hatch of the trawl net is stitched shut, the first offence should result in the cancellation of the boat’s licence, impounding of the vessel and the imposition of a fine. Any subsequent offence should incur a punitive fine. 

The funds collected from these fines should be deposited into a dedicated account with the Forest Department, earmarked for turtle protection. Additionally, vessels, trawlers and gill nets seized during such actions must be stored in a secure location on land, necessitating the establishment of appropriate facilities at each of the three nesting sites at Gahirmatha, Devi and Rushikulya, the commission said.

A TED functions as an escape hatch within a fishing net. Small creatures such as shrimp can pass through the grid bars and enter the end of the net, while larger ones like sea turtles are obstructed by the grid. By incorporating TEDs into fishing nets, turtles can navigate to safety while retaining the fish catch. 

“The devices reduce the capture of turtles by 97 per cent, with only a minor two per cent decrease in total prawn catch. Turtles frequently face mortality when ensnared in fishing nets lacking TEDs. Unfortunately, not a single trawler along the Odisha coast is utilising TEDs, placing the fate of turtles in jeopardy,” said BC Chaudhury, retired senior scientist, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.   

There are 21,000 fishing vessels in the state, which includes 2,000 trawlers,  according to the fishery department. “Fourteen years ago, the department distributed 1,800 TEDs to fishing trawlers, following the directive of the CEC. However, none of the trawlers are currently utilising the devices,” claimed Rout.

“It is the responsibility of fisheries officials to withhold licence renewals for trawlers without TEDs. Regrettably, the Fisheries Department has yet to take any corrective action against these non-compliant trawlers,” he further claimed. 

Read more: At least 800 Olive Ridleys dead in Odisha since January

Srikant Parida, president of Paradip Trawler Owners Association and secretary of Odisha Marine Fish Producers Association, claimed turtles are not immortal and that the marine species face mortality due to widespread pollution in the sea and ageing. 

“The movement of large cargo ships close to turtle rookeries in the sea also contributes to turtle fatalities. We opt not to use TEDs in our trawlers because fitting our nets with these devices would lead to a 50 per cent reduction in our catch,” Parida claimed.

The extensive human population residing along the 484-kilometre coastline is heavily reliant on coastal and marine resources. The escalating developmental activities occurring in the coastal and marine environment pose substantial ecological stress on marine flora and fauna, including marine turtles.

A multi-layered patrolling exercise has been initiated by the forest department, fisheries department, marine police,and coast guard in the sea to safeguard Olive Ridley sea turtles, stated Susant Nanda, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) in the Odisha Forest Department.

“To ensure efficient patrolling, 61 on-shore camps and five off-shore camps have been established across the state’s four wildlife divisions in Bhadrak, Rajnagar, Puri and Berhampur. Additionally, five high-speed boats, 13 trawlers and support boats have been deployed to deter illegal marine fishing activities in prohibited zones,” Nanda added.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.