132 Dead… and Counting: Turtles Are Suffering on Chennai Coast

Since the nesting season began in January, over 100 dead Olive Ridley turtles have been found on the Chennai coast.

Published24 Jan 2018, 07:35 AM IST
India
4 min read

Taking a stroll down the beach, watching crabs scurry into their holes in the sand – this has been my favourite pastime in Chennai. However, since the last five years, walking down the shore during the first half of the year has been a bloodied ordeal: carcasses of turtles lying on the sands, with plastic wrappers wound over their heads, or cut by fishing nets so badly that their innards jutting out.

Though nesting season began barely a month ago, 132 dead Olive Ridley turtles have washed ashore.

What Is This Yearly Ritual?

Since millions of years, female Olive Ridley turtles return to the same beach from where they hatched. They lay their eggs in conical nests a few feet deep, which they laboriously dig with their hind flippers. Two months later, the eggs begin to hatch, and the beaches are swamped with crawling Olive-Ridley turtle babies, making their first trek towards the ocean.

The Chennai coast has been witnessing this ritual year after year.

Carcasses of dead turtles lay on the Chennai coast.
Carcasses of dead turtles lay on the Chennai coast.
(Photo: Smitha TK/ The Quint)
Concrete buildings have changed the topography of the land, eating up the nesting grounds of the turtles.

A Million-Year-Old Ritual Begs for Help from Humans

The turtles come to the shore, they lay their eggs on the sands, and head back into the ocean. It is only recently that activists stepped in to make sure the baby turtles are safe.

“We collect the eggs and keep them in our hatchery... and once the hatchlings come out, we release them back into the ocean. We started doing this because turtles were nesting in deserted beaches where there was nothing around, and so when the hatchlings come out, they are attracted towards brighter lights... and because of the starlight and moonlight’s reflection on the ocean, they move towards the ocean,” said Shravan, animal activist.

Every year, from January through May, volunteers protect the eggs and release the hatchlings back into the sea making sure they are not harmed in any way.
Every year, from January through May, volunteers protect the eggs and release the hatchlings back into the sea making sure they are not harmed in any way.
(Photo Courtesy: Shravan Krishnan)
Now that the beaches have been commercialised and you have a lot of street lights, they get attracted towards the city side. They are easy prey for crows, crabs, or just dehydrate and die.
Shravan Krishnan, animal activist

For the last few decades, wildlife conservationists and student volunteers have taken it upon themselves to ensure that every egg that is hatched is secure and the baby turtles are released back into the ocean.

But the responsibility lies with the fishermen and the Fisheries Department to prevent the death of turtles in the ocean.

Why Are They Dying?

Reasons? Illegal fishing methods.
The plight of Olive Ridley turtles doesn’t seem to end.
The plight of Olive Ridley turtles doesn’t seem to end.
(Photo Courtesy: Shravan Krishnan)

In September 2016, the Tamil Nadu government banned fishing in a radius of five nautical miles around potential nesting grounds of turtles in coastal areas. However, despite the ban, fishermen still take their mechanised boats and go fishing within this perimeter.

Fish is caught using two methods: trawling boats and gill nets.

Trawling is a method of fishing that involves pulling a fishing net through the water behind one or more boats.

A gill net is a wall of netting made of nylon. The mesh is designed to allow fish to get their head through the net but not their body. The gills then get caught in the mesh as the fish tries to back out.

The turtles get entangled in the net, get bruised, and are thrown back into the ocean.

This Can Be Avoided, but Nothing Is Being Done

There is a viable solution already in place, but it certainly not in practice.
Despite several warnings by environmentalists, fishermen still resort to illegal fishing methods that is taking a toll on the marine life.
Despite several warnings by environmentalists, fishermen still resort to illegal fishing methods that is taking a toll on the marine life.
(Photo: Smitha TK/ The Quint)

It has been mandatory for trawls to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TED), a net specially designed with an exit cover that allows turtles to escape but still retaining the catch. However, it has been strongly opposed by the fishing community, as they believe TEDs result in 20 to 25 percent loss in catch.

Nishanth Nichu, an animal activist who has especially been active in turtle conservation, said, “Earlier, as per a scientific study, there was around 12 to 13 percent loss in fish catch due to use of TEDs. But in the latest model, it’s barely 2.5 percent – fishermen claim it is 20 to 25 percent. There is no backing to any of their claims the fishermen make.”

Circle of Life

Every time there is a meeting held between the Fisheries Department, fisher folks, and wildlife activists, the fishermen lament that the catch has reduced drastically in the last few years. And they often ask wildlife conservationists why they need to protect an animal, the turtle, that is not helpful to them in any way.

Well, if you do not, the ecosystem is disrupted.

The volunteers release the hatching a few feet away from the water, so that the little ones can make the last trek towards where they belong.
The volunteers release the hatching a few feet away from the water, so that the little ones can make the last trek towards where they belong.
(Photo Courtesy: Shravan Krishnan)
Turtles feed on jellyfish, which in turn feed on fish eggs. And if there are no turtles then you will have a lot of jellyfish feeding on fish eggs. This is very important to understand.
Shravan Krishnan
Food for thought: You take everything from the ocean, but what have you given back? 

Video Editor: Vivek Gupta

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