February 27, 2019

Fishing communities of Odisha protect the endangered olive ridley sea turtle

Fishing communities in eastern India are setting an example by protecting endangered olive ridley marine turtles during their annual mating and nesting activities, and helping millions of tiny hatchlings reach the sea safely.

Villagers of Gokharkuda help hatchlings reach the sea safely © Basudev Mahapatra
As the nesting season begins, the beach between Podampeta village in Ganjam district of Odisha, India, and the Bay of Bengal gets thickly dotted with thousands of olive ridley marine turtles. Female sea turtles visit the beach en masse for the annual nesting activity called arribada, which is a synchronised, large-scale nesting of sea turtles on any single beach.

Mass nesting by marine turtles in India

Nearby beaches at Gokharkuda and Purunabandh villages also receive similar number of turtles that cover thousands of kilometres in the sea from the Indian Ocean to the coasts of the Bay of Bengal in Odisha, for mating and nesting activities. In 2018, beaches at the Rushikulya river mouth received nearly 500,000 mother turtles.

This year, in 2019, the activity has been delayed at these places and n nesting activity has taken place till the date of publication of this report, maybe, because of changes in climatic and beach conditions.

The eastern Indian province of Odisha has three known mass nesting destinations. While the Gahirmatha and Rushikulya river mouths attract hundreds of thousands of turtles every year, regular sporadic events are spotted at the Devi river mouth. According to official estimations, Odisha witnessed the mass nesting of over 1.2 million female sea turtles in 2018.

Fishing communities protect sea turtles

As turtle nesting starts after midnight and continues until morning, threats to the turtles and their eggs from scavenging animals like dogs and birds including crows and kites are always around the corner. But activities can go on undisturbed thanks to local fishing communities who protect the eggs and help mothers return to the sea

“Trapped in the nets used by fishing trawlers, many of these mothers come with injuries in their legs and neck. We need to take care of such mothers,” Magata, a volunteer from the fishing community says while helping an injured turtle.

As millions of hatchlings emerge from the sands after about 45 days of nesting, women, children and men of the communities come together to ensure that the hatchlings reach the sea before the sun goes high and the sand becomes too hot.

“In the past these communities were predating on the marine turtles and their eggs,” tells B. Chittamma, the leader of coastal fisherwomen. “Now, they regulate the use of fishing nets and respect government’s ban on fishing within five kilometres from the coast for seven months, from November till May.”

“We feel proud of these turtles. They have made our beaches important,” says Sunita, a villager of Puruna Bandha near Rushikulya river mouth.

This has been possible through a series of awareness programmes, according to Rabindranath Sahu of Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee. “Regular visit by olive ridley turtles is a sign that our coastal ecosystem is healthy with sufficient fishes and planktons around to create food opportunities for the marine turtles,” says Mangaraj Panda of Odisha Marine Resource Conservation Consortium.

The olive ridley sea turtle

The olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), also known as the Pacific ridley sea turtle, is the smallest of all marine turtle species. Mostly found in warm and tropical waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as in the warm waters of Atlantic Ocean, the species is named after its olive coloured, heart-shaped carapace. The species has been categorised as vulnerable by the IUCN red list of threatened species.

The beaches of Odisha are special because of the relatively large size of sand grains where female turtles can easily dig a hole to lay over 100 eggs of golf ball size. Sufficient food opportunities for hundred thousands of turtles while mating and millions of hatchlings are the other attractions.
While making their way from the nest to the water, the hatchlings imprint a type of magnetic signature of the nesting beach into their minds, which stays with them for the rest of their lives. They visit the same beach after attaining sexual maturity at the age of 15. However, of the millions venture into the sea, only a few thousand turtles survive to become adults and come back for nesting.

Usually, the turtles reach Odisha coasts during October for mating. They nest on the beach in the months of February and March and the season continues till the end of May or even beyond until all the tiny hatchlings make their way into the open sea.

(This piece first appeared on LifeGate, a socio-environmental news website published from Italy,)

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