Bhubaneswar, Jan. 8: The blue-green waters of the Orissa coast are once again turning red with the blood of Olive Ridley turtles that have fallen prey to the hundreds of mechanised trawlers scouring the region.
More than 3,000 Olive Ridleys have died so far in the current season because of large-scale illegal fishing in the turtle-congregation areas at Devi and Rushikulya river mouths.
The high death count has alarmed turtle experts, who believe that this year’s mass nesting would also fail like in the previous year.
After a few casualties in November 2002, the numbers registered a sharp increase the following month as the turtles come very close to the shore for mating during this period.
On January 3 this year, workers of Operation Kachhapa, a non-government initiative, counted 358 lifeless turtles that had washed up at the Devi river mouth.
The Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, however, proved to be safe for the turtles. As a result of the efforts of the Orissa forest department and the coast guards who undertook sea patrols under Operation Oliver, casualties in Gahirmatha were limited to 700. During the last two months, 44 fishing vessels have been seized from here for illegal fishing.
These boats operate with impunity due to the failure of the fisheries department to control them.
“The high mortality rate only betrays the lack of sincere efforts by the state government to protect this endangered species,” said Biswajit Mohanty, project coordinator of Operation Kachhapa.
Olive Ridley turtles are protected under Schedule I to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and trapping or killing them is a punishable offence with a jail term of up to six years.
Though the fisheries department has deployed one trawler and a small fibre boat for patrol purposes at the Devi and Rushikulya river mouths, patrolling hardly takes place due to connivance of the field officers with trawler-owners.
This is apparent from the fact that not a single fishing boat has been seized since last one month when the patrols started.
Now fishing trawlers operate within the turtle congregation at the Devi river mouth, spelling disaster for the turtles. On New Year’s eve, as many as 12 trawlers were found fishing here within 2 km of the coast right inside the turtle congregation zone during a survey of the Ganga Devi coast. None of them were using the mandatory turtle excluder devices.
“The key to successful turtle protection is strict enforcement of marine fishery regulations,” said Mohanty.
More than a lakh turtles have been counted dead over the last decade and over 16,000 died last year alone. As per the Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, 1982, a maximum of 1,000 licences for mechanised fishing can be issued to the state.
However, 6,000 licences for mechanised fishing boats have been illegally issued and thousands of mechanised craft operate in coastal waters within 5 km near the shore where the turtles are found violating fishing rules.
Funds to the extent of nearly Rs 3 crore available with the state government to buy fast patrol boats are yet to be spent. Fast patrol craft are required to chase and apprehend fishing trawlers.
Trawlers used presently for patrolling are awfully slow and ill equipped.
Mass nesting had failed last year in Orissa due to a massive mortality, which occurred due to lack of protection measures. Since the turtles are congregated at the three well-identified coastal sites of Gahirmatha and Devi and Rushikulya river mouths, we need to protect these congregations from illegal fishing to ensure mass nesting, Mohanty said.
Turtle experts like Mohanty fear that unless immediate steps are taken to strictly enforce fishing regulations at Devi and Rushikulya river mouths, it would be a repeat of last year — a large-scale mortality resulting in failure of mass nesting.