November 29, 2010

The Price of Development: Ports Versus the Turtle Breeding Grounds of Orissa

Though Olive Ridley Sea Turtles are found throughout the world, Orissa – an eastern coastline state of India, is the single largest rookery or breeding ground in the world for these turtles which migrate from the Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal every year for mating and nesting. Worshipped by most small fishermen as an incarnation of one of their gods and left alone, the turtles are nevertheless caught as by-catch in gillnets or by trawlers.  How is large scale industrialisation along the coasts going to affect the turtles and the other species in the unique mudflat ecology?  One of the ports, the controversial Dhamra Port, a tie-up between Indian corporate giants Larsen & Toubro and TATA has also been the target of a Greenpeace campaign. 

Famous worldwide for three mass breeding habitats for Olive Ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys Olivacea), Orissa may soon have to lose these turtle nesting sites on its coastline. Because of massive industrialisation plans along its 480 km long coastal stretch, the rare turtles may abandon the sites for annual mating and nesting activities if they sense these areas as unsafe and disturbing for breeding.

Unique ecology of Orissa’s coastlines and turtle populations

Orissa’s coastlines are blessed with a unique ecological habitat due to its dynamic coastal systems and its network of large rivers with rich delta systems that pour into the oceans.   According to Dr. Chandra Sekhar Kar, Wildlife Scientist of Orissa Forest and Wildlife Department,The turtles visit three places on Orissa Coast – the Dhamra River Mouth at Gahirmatha, Devi River Mouth at Astarang and the Rusikulya River Mouth.
It’s the sand grain size that enables the turtles dig a hole in the sands to lay eggs inside. The suitability of the  habitat which has a  variety of micro-organisms and thick mangroves to generate feed for lakhs (1 lakh = 1 hundred thousand) of adult turtles and millions of their hatchlings attracts Olive Ridley turtles in such large numbers to  visit the coasts of Orissa for mating and mass nesting. Orissa is quite fortunate to have three such places that have become mass nesting destinations for the marine turtles. However, of course, many of the turtles die while on their journey to the nesting sites or during the time of mating in the Sea.
According to the US based National Marine Fisheries Service, “ In 1991, over 600, 000 turtles nested along the coast of Orissa in one week.”(Wikipedia) Currently, according to Michael Peter, the State Director of WWF, ‘The population that visit the coasts for mass nesting consisting of  female turtles is between 250 – 350 thousand every year. Adding the male population of the marine species that include the groups migrating to the coasts of Orissa as 60% of the female turtles, the number would go beyond five hundred thousand.”
There is already so much apprehension among the international conservationists and wildlife activists who believe that the number of turtle deaths that occur every year in the Orissa coast make the beaches more like turtle graveyards. On an average, more than six thousand turtles die every year along Orissa coasts whereas non-government sources claim the toll to be at least one hundred thousand over the last decade.
While such a large number of deaths of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles across the coastline of Orissa bother wildlife lovers and organisations working for the protection of endangered species, unfortunately government departments and a few agencies working in the areas of nature conservation and wildlife protection in Orissa are not as bothered, saying that the toll is “hardly one to two percent of the total Olive Ridley population that visit the three nesting grounds on the coasts of Orissa.”
They fail to see that total numbers of the turtles which have been declared an endangered species have declined rapidly over the last two decades.

Effects of Trawler fishing on small fishermen

Whatever steps government has taken for the safety of turtles are definitely not sufficient as the dead shells are being washed ashore in huge numbers every season.
While the turtles are not safe in the sea, the fishing communities living around the nesting sites have ironically been the worst victims of the short term safety measures taken by the government. As fishing in the sea is banned during the peak fishing season in the name of turtle safety, thousands of fishermen families turn jobless for more than six months and face serious livelihood problems. So far, the government has not done any thing to resolve their livelihood related issues. Finding no other options to earn a livelihood for the families, many of the fishermen have committed suicide.
Traditional fishermen consider turtles as an incarnation of god and worship them. They neither consume turtle eggs nor its meat. In fact, it is the shrimp trawlers owned by large business houses and influential  politicians or those with political affiliations who are the major culprits, flouting the rules continuously.

More ports?

The Orissa Government’s plan for about thirteen new ports along the coast line in close proximity to the turtle nesting beaches could endanger the species further.
WWF State Director Michel Peter concurs “We are really concerned about so many of the ports are being permitted to up along the coast. There will be definitely some impacts on the Olive Ridley Sea Turtles. In order to minimise the impact we are discussing with the Government of Orissa and we hope for some kind of solution regarding this.”
The largest among all new ports planned in Orissa is the one on the Dhamra Mouth that is about to become operative soon. Built and to be managed by Dhamra Port Company Ltd (DPCL) – a subsidiary of TATA Group, Dhamra port is located at an aerial distance of about 15 km from the noted turtle nesting site at Gahirmatha.
The proposed port side is a unique ecological habitat with long stretches of inter-tidal mudflats from the site to the river mouth. This intertidal zone according to Greenpeace’s 2007 Biodiversity assessment report stretches as wide as 2 kilometers and are an important breeding ground for several marine creatures. 
Even though Environmental Impact Assesssment (EIA) 1997  report said that the port is not going to deter the turtles from nesting at their usual site, local people and environment experts say that the river mouth that is to be used by the port as the main channel happens to be the route for turtle movement to and from Gahirmatha. They believe that once the port becomes operative, the underwater vibration during the ship movement which may detract or deter the turtles from coming to the nesting site. If that happens, Gahirmatha would be abandoned by the turtles for nesting activities. [Please see footnotes for the impact of other ports] 

Biodiversity assessment:

In terms of biodiversity, Orissa is one of India’s richest states, but according to Greenpeace’s 2007 Biodiversity assessment report, it’s also the least studied and catalogued.  According to the Greenpeace’s backgrounder , the Environment Impact Assessment study was undertaken in 1997, with L&T and Singapore based International Seaports Ltd as major stakeholders in the Dhamra port project. However the port site was on Kanika sands which is now on the mainland. The initial proposed capacity was 20 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) with a ship handling capacity of 120,000 deadweight tons (dwt) whereas the proposed capacity now is 83 mtpa, and 180,000 dwt respectively.
In July 2004, the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee recommended, “The present site (Dhamra) will seriously impact Gahirmatha’s nesting turtles and could lead to the beach being abandoned by the marine creatures. It is therefore necessary that an alternative site is located for this port.”
Given that no comprehensive Environment Impact Analysis (EIA) has ever been done for the current project, and the major flaws in the 1997 EIA report which include “poor baseline ecological data, a complete omission of the impacts on turtles, impacts of noise and chemical pollution and a poor hazard analysis and emergency plan.”

Balancing Development, the Precautionary Principle and the Turtles

As a member of the UN’s Global Compact, TATA Steel is honour bound to abide by the Precautionary Principle, which according to the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992, Preamble is explained as: “Where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.”
Several engineering options exist such as the more technologically advanced offshore ports. Are industries and the State prepared to pay a higher price for development to ensure the safety of the marine creatures?
Going ahead with the port construction regardless of the environmental impact would certainly help bring some revenue to the state and make a few corporate houses thrive on the coasts of Orissa, but the state is going to be blamed globally for being failed to protect the breeding habitats of the endangered marine turtle species. If the state wants to have the both, it must urgently rework its plan of development through the ports.
Otherwise, in a few years, the tradition of mass nesting by Olive Ridley Sea Turtles will become history for the state of Orissa.


The other ports that would also affect the annual activities of the turtles are the ports planned at Astarang, Gopalpur and the other at Chudamani near Basudevpur. While Basudevpur Port is a minor port at a few Kilometers from the Dhamra Port, the other Port to be built at Astaranga is planned on the mouth of Devi River where lakhs of turtle visit every year to mate and nest. Devi River mouth is also known as the movement track of bottle-nose dolphins who often visit the mouth in groups.
The other mass nesting site at Rushikulya River mouth is going to face the worst impacts of Gopalpur port and the green port planned at Palur. While the port would come up just before the turtle movement track, ‘the pollution and possible ecological impacts of the port would make the coast unsuitable for breeding. And, the worst impact would be that the port would accelerate the process of erosion of the coast’, says Biswajit Mohanty, leading wildlife activist and member of National Wildlife Board, India.
Coastal erosion is again another issue in Astarang where Bay of Bengal has already submerged over 5 km of human habitations in last 30 years. A port on Devi River mouth would help further and fast erosion.
Mass plantation near the ports along the coast to minimise the impact of pollution or recreate the mangrove destroyed during building of the port infrastructure will not work. In fact the impact would be more fatal to the turtles. “With extensive planting of Casuarinas trees all along the coast, there may not be suitable beaches for turtles to nest sporadically. The Devi rookery is reported to have lost prime turtle nesting beach due to plantation activities. There is an additional problem in case of the sporadic nests and that is related to predation. Nearly 95 % of the sporadic nests recorded along a 25 km coastline along the Rushikulya rookery in 2007 nesting season were observed predated by feral dogs and jackals. It is believed that the dense Casuarinas plantations support high predator numbers’, says the WII fact sheet on turtle behaviour and activities.
The report first appeared on November 26, 2010, at the Eco Walk The talk

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