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Updated on Monday, June 09, 2014.

First posted on Satruday, December 31, 2011.

CLIMATE CHANGE & COASTAL EROSION

Climate Change Impact may force Olive Ridley Turtles to reject Odisha beaches for mass nesting

"Higher degree of erosion at many points of Odisha's coastline poses serious threat to the routine activities of marine turtles and raises doubts about the continuity of the tradition of mass nesting by the Olive Ridley marine turtles called ‘Arribada’. The nesting grounds are being squeezed alarmingly and the coastal vegetation that plays a vital role in providing food to lakhs of mother turtles and their hatchlings is vanishing rapidly because of coastal erosion and aggressive persuasion of development projects like port infrastructure by Odisha government across the coastline. In regard to the nesting activities this season (2012), things look quite uncertain as the beaches near Gahirmatha river mouth, Devi river mouth and Rushikulya river mouth, that have been the regular nesting grounds for the turtles, have lost most of their space in the Bay of Bengal because of erosion."

Basudev Mahapatra

   

The mating season of Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) marine turtles has already begun in the Bay of Bengal close to the coastline of Odisha, India. As per experts and volunteers working in areas of safety and conservation of the sea turtles, things go well with the mating this year. But what they apprehend is that higher degree of erosion at many points of the coastline poses serious threat to the marine specie and raises doubts about the continuity of the tradition of mass nesting by the Olive Ridley marine turtles called ‘Arribada’. The doubts seem to be logical because the nesting grounds are being squeezed alarmingly and the coastal vegetation that plays a vital role in providing food to lakhs of mother turtles and their hatchlings is vanishing rapidly because of coastal erosion and aggressive persuasion of development projects like port infrastructure by the government across the coastline. In regard to the nesting activities this season (2012), things look quite uncertain as the beaches near Gahirmatha river mouth, Devi river mouth and Rushikulya river mouth, that have been the regular nesting grounds for the turtles, have lost most of their space in the Bay of Bengal because of erosion.

Inhabiting tropical and subtropical bays of Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Ocean, this marine specie visits some specific beaches of Odisha for mass nesting activity because of the conditions that are conducive for mating, nesting and hatching.

“Odisha’s beaches are special to these sea turtles for many reasons like, the size of the sand grains that offering the turtle with and opportunity and all convenience to dig a whole in the sand and lay eggs; the unique coastal vegetation that offers ample amount of food to thousands of mother turtles and millions of their hatchlings; the climatic condition with a proper balance of temperature and moisture for the hatchlings to emerge from the eggs”, says noted wildlife scientist Dr. Chandra Sekhar Kar of Odisha Wildlife department.

Now, mating activities have been spotted in the sea near all three major rookeries, known so far, like Rushikulya River Mouth, Devi River Mouth and Gahirmatha River mouth. But it's difficult to conclude at this point that the annual activity of mass nesting would go well this year. The trend of sea erosion in many points of the coastline, and mostly at places that are close to the rookeries, has not only raised concern about the nesting activity this time but also the continuity of the tradition of mass nesting on the beaches of Odisha.

The rookery that first drew the attention of turtle researchers and wildlife lovers as the biggest host of annual ‘Arribada’ is Gahirmatha River Mouth in the northern coast of Odisha that is now the middle point between two major ports at Dhamra and Paradip. Lakhs of marine turtles travel miles in the sea to reach this place for nesting. “Erosion of the beach adjacent to the river mouth at an alarming scale has forced the visiting turtles to nest at Nasi now, a few KM away from the traditional nesting site at Gahirmatha”, says Jivan das, Secretary of People for Animal’s Odisha Chapter adding that, “beaches where turtles in thousands do the annual mass nesting are getting squeezed day by day. If this trend continues, the turtles may have no other option but to abandon the beaches of Odisha and look for other destinations”.

While the rise in sea level resulted by the phenomenon of global warming and climate change thereof is believed to be the primary reason of the erosion at Gahirmatha, “back current of the break waters of Paradip Port is (believed to be) the other reason of it. Environmentalists and Geologists are also holding Paradip Port as the cause of rapid coastal erosion of the adjacent beaches. Unfortunately, to accelerate the process of erosion and push the nesting beach to further risk of being rejected by the marine turtles another major port has started operating along Dhamra River Mouth at a distance of just 15 KM northward”, says Jivan Das.

As per a report titled 'Biological and Behavioural Aspects of Olive Ridley Turtles along the Orissa Coast of India' brought out in 2009 jointly by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and WII (Wildlife Institute of India), "the mass nesting beach at Gahirmatha has undergone considerable changes in its beach morphology since its discovery in 1974. When first reported, nesting was observed to occur along 15 km of the mainland beach near the Maipura river mouth, from Ekakula to Habalikhati. This beach got fragmented into two, during a cyclonic storm in 1989, following which, mass nesting was restricted to a four km long beach, renamed as the Ekakula Nasi rookery. Again during the 1999 ‘super-cyclone’ that hit the Orissa coast, the Ekakula Nasi further split into few smaller islands. And, presently, mass nesting takes place on these small islands, each less than one km in length".

The report also confirms in the chapter 'Gap Areas of Research on the olive ridley turtles of Orissa' to the fact that nesting has been disturbed because of limited space available to the turtles for their activities where it says, "The foremost issue concerning turtles and the gaps in our knowledge is the cause for the continual decline in the nesting beach area, specifically those of the Nasi islands in the Gahirmatha rookery. Over the years, the nesting beach has become fragmented and considerably reduced in size. This is supported by the failure of the arribada or mass nesting in some years at this rookery. Is this a natural phenomenon especially that the sand bars and spits formed at the river mouth are likely to be dynamic, or is it that the erosive nature of the seas has accelerated as a result of global climate change, or is it that the formation of sand bars and spits becomes erratic as a result of developmental activities in the adjoining areas or due to those happening upstream."

Whatever be the reason, erosion of beaches has resulted in less space for the turtles to do their activities and destruction of the mangrove and coastal vegetation that act as the source of food for the visiting marine turtles.

Another report based on an intensive WII study made by B. C. Chaudhury and Bivas Pandav, titled 'Conservation and Management of olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) in Orissa, India', says, "Between 1990 and 2000 significant geo-morphological changes have taken place at Nasi Island. Over the past decade the Nasi Island has moved nearly 5 km northwards. Studies on morphodynamics of this rookery have revealed that they are under severe stress due to erosion. In 1998, the Nasi Island got fragmented into two parts and since then it has been subjected to further fragmentation resulting in a drastic reduction in space available for the turtles to nest. These islands have presently broken into four parts, two of which are no longer suitable for turtle nesting". The revelation that two parts of Nasi Island "are no longer suitable for turtle nesting" offers with a strong ground to the apprehension that lack of space for nesting and mangrove to meet the food requirements of the adult turtles would force the Olive Ridley sea turtles to reject the beaches of Odisha.

A little southward, situation is no better for these marine turtles visiting the coasts near Devi River Mouth at Astarang in Puri district. The new mouth opened up with the super cyclone of 1999 has just speed up the process of erosion in the coasts near Kadua River Mouth in Astarang that has been playing the role of a major host of mass nesting activities by the marine turtles. “In fact, the erosion is taking place in the nesting beaches near Devi River Mouth and the beach is going harder with the sand layer going thinner”, observes Bichitrananda Biswal of Sea Turtles Action Programme. A thin layer of sand would not allow the turtles with an opportunity to dig a hole in the sand that can carry at least 100 eggs of golf ball size. While the nesting beaches are getting limited, the reef like sand walls just on the sea coast may not attract the turtles to these beaches as the female turtles would not prefer to climb on the vertical sand walls to lay eggs.

While the vulnerability of the particular coast to climate change impacts has increased to an alarming degree and the unique beach is losing its area into the sea because of erosion, Odisha government’s plan for a minor port on Devi River Mouth is just adding further risks to the beach that has been a popular rookery for the Olive Ridley Sea turtles since many years.

Worst, again, is the condition of the other nesting ground at Rushikulya River Mouth that has been the second largest turtle rookery in the state of Odisha, or India one can say as Odisha is the only state blessed with three major nesting grounds for Olive Ridley turtles.

With the river mouth shifting its course northwards, erosion of the beach has been faster since 2007 and the portion where turtles used to lay eggs has been squeezed from 4.5 KM to 200 meters only! “We don’t know how many of the turtles can use this limited space for their nesting activity this year. Even though there is some space in the south of the mouth, we don’t know if the turtles are going to use that space because, so far, the turtles never used that side of the mouth for nesting”, says Rabindra Nath Sahu, Secretary of Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee. “Climate Change or the disturbances in the natural phenomena do not only compress the beach but also destroys the coastal ecosystem that offers with a plenty of food to the mother turtles and their hatchlings”, adds Rabindra.

It’s not that the Wildlife Officials of Odisha Government has not sensed the possible dangers to the rookeries from the current trend of climate change. The Principal Chief Conservators of Forest confirms to have knowledge of it. “Wherever the sea coast is damaged, a proper beach is not available. Because if the beach is confined and turtles do not find it conducive to lay egg and if they are not able to dig a hole to lay eggs, they will move from there. Even if new mouths are opened and erosion takes place as it happened with the beach near Gopalpur, the turtles may not find the space what they found last year. This time the space has become limited”, said J. D. Sharma, the PCCF and Chief Wildlife Warden of Odisha. Expressing his apprehension Sharma added that, “Yes, in a long term, this may have some overall impact on the progeny and procreation of some species including that of the Olive Ridley Sea turtle”. But authorities just show their helplessness citing that the issue not being a local one but a global one.

Apart from natural reasons the nesting ground at Rushikulya River Mouth is also threatened by the sea walls of the nearby Gopalpur Port. Environmentalists and wildlife lovers take the two sea walls of the Port as the reason of rapid erosion that washed away mot part of the rookery. “It’s unfortunate that the Port is planning another sea wall that would just make the little space, now available to the turtles, submerge in the sea”, says Rabindra Nath Sahu condemning the government for its faulty development policies that act as a catalyst in destroying the balance of nature and placing human life, wildlife and the total coastal ecosystem at extreme vulnerability.

If the coastal erosion continues across the coastline of Odisha at the current pace, the marine turtles would find it difficult to make space for their nesting activity. In such a situation, it’s not wrong or illogical to apprehend that the spectacular view of turtles mating on the sea surface and nesting in mass along the Odisha coast would just become history in a few years’ time. Olive Ridley, the marine specie that has offered Odisha with a special place in the world wildlife map, would reject the coastline of Odisha if it doesn't offer the marine turtle with adequate space and food opportunities. So, it’s high-time for the government, agencies, environment activists and wildlife lovers to take the issue seriously and work in a direction that can minimise the impact of climate change in the coastline and save the beaches with all their features that attract lakhs of sea turtles for mating and nesting.

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