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Monday, June 09, 2014  
Orissa may have to lose its turtle mass nesting grounds for Ports
"While the number of deaths of Olive Ridley sea turtles across the coast line of Orissa is still alarming, at least thirteen new ports planned by the Government of Orissa would pose imminent threat to the three turtle breeding grounds that have offered Orissa with a prominent place in the world turtle map. Three out of the ut of the thirteen new ports planned so far would harm the turtle breeding habitats at Gahirmatha and Devi River mouth. Environment and wildlife scientists and conservationists apprehend that the possible impact of the ports on the coastal ecosystem would detract or deter the marine turtles to visit their traditional breeding grounds for mating and mass nesting."
Basudev Mahapatra (With Input from Sujata Mahapatra)
   

Famous world wide for having three mass breeding habitats for Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys Olivacea) sea turtles, Orissa may have to lose these turtle nesting sites on its coast line. Because of development planning just to make use of the 480 KM long coast as a primary resource, the rare turtles may abandon the sites for annual mating and nesting activities for they would sense the sites as unsafe and disturbing places for breeding.

As such, there is already such an 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. As per reports, population of adult turtles visiting the coasts for nesting is in decrease because of death of adult turtles during every breeding season. In an average, more than six thousand turtles die every year along Orissa coasts when non-government sources claim the toll to be at least one lakh over the last decade

When such huge 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, government departments and a few agencies working in the areas of nature conservation and wildlife protection in Orissa are not so much bothered about it 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.

‘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 because of the sand grain size that enables the turtles dig a whole in the sands to lay eggs inside and habitat suitability with variety of micro-organism, thick mangrove to generate feed for lakhs of adult turtles and millions of their hatchlings that Olive Ridley turtles in such large numbers 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’, said Dr. Chandra Sekhar Kar, Wildlife Scientist of Orissa Forest and Wildlife Department.

‘The total population that visit the coasts for mass nesting is the population of female turtles which is between 2.5 – 3.5 lakhs 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 lakhs. In the course, many of the visiting turtles die in the Sea for different reasons. A few of the adult turtles would be dying a natural death, some by falling prey to predators in the sea and it’s also true that many of them die in the trap of the trawler nets and gill nets. If you see the total number of deaths in one season, it’s between one to two percent’, says Michael Peter, the State Director of WWF.

As Olive Ridley Sea turtle has been declared an endangered species, such a huge number of deaths every year make a reason for world wide concern. As per a fact sheet released in 2009 by Wildlife Institute of India on request and with support from IUCN under the title ‘Biological and Behavioural Aspects of Olive Ridley Turtles along the Orissa Coast of India’, the annual turtle mortality was over 10000 during mid-nineties. ‘With over 100,000 turtles, all breeding adults, reported killed in the last decade along the Orissa coast, there are reports of a decline of large sized turtles in the population. A decrease in size of the nesting females observed over the years is thought to indicate the removal of the older population’, says the WII fact sheet.

As per non-government sources the mortality is still over 6000 a year along Orissa Coasts even after a number of awareness drives and safety measures as claimed by the concerned departments of Orissa Government.

While the turtles are not safe in the sea, the fishing communities living around the nesting sites have been the worst victims of whatever 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.

The fact is that traditional fishermen consider turtles as an incarnation of god and worship them. They neither consume turtle eggs nor its meat. In fact, the Shrimp trawlers owned by large business houses and influential people like politicians or politically affiliated ones are the major culprits but flout the rules continuously.

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. On the other hand, the innocent fishing communities are suffering for government’s short term measures.

In order to save the turtles and offer them with a peaceful coast for their mating and nesting, the local communities should be involved in turtle safety activities and their livelihood issues are to be taken seriously.

When safety of these marine turtles is something to be looked at very seriously, Orissa Government’s plan for about thirteen new ports along the coast line would endanger the species further as thirteen new ports are planned over sites at a close proximity to the turtle mass nesting beaches.

From the thirteen points mapped to develop new port infrastructure, Orissa Government has already signed concession agreement for two ports and another three have crossed the MoU stage. Out of these five new ports that are expected to come in first two phases, sites of three are located at a close distance from the turtle mass nesting sites and, certainly, many of these ports are going to use the turtle movement track as their ship movement channel.

‘We are really concerned about so many of the ports that are being permitted to come up along the coast. There will be definitely some impacts on the Olive Ridley Sea Turtles. In order to minimise the impact of these infrastructure on the coastal ecology, we are discussing with the Government of Orissa and we hope for some kind of solution at the earliest’, says WWF State Director Michel Peter.

The largest among all new ports planned in Orissa is the Port 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. Even though the Forest and environment department has said in its report 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. And, many of the environment experts believe that once the port becomes operative, there would be a kind of underwater vibration during the ship movement which may detract or deter the turtles from coming to the nesting site. If it happens, Gahirmatha would be abandoned by the turtles for nesting activities.

‘The major issues to come up with such number of ports along the coast line of Orissa are pollution and change in the coastal eco-system. However, the scale of impact has to be measured and there is also a common tendency in all living beings of adaptation to changes. If the turtles get adapted to the activities that is going to start with the port goes operational then they would come and nest. Otherwise, they may abandon the coast. The possibility of the coast being abandoned is there because they turtles look for a peaceful zone for there mating and nesting. May be this is the reason why they visit Orissa in such huge numbers for their mating and nesting activities’, says Rahas Bihari Panda, Environment Scientist and Associate Professor in the Department of Environment Science at Fakir Mohan University.

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.

So, the ecological changes that is to happen once the port at Astarang is built and goes operative would not only affect the turtle breeding space in the sea and on the beach but it also would cause damage to the dolphin population that use the river mouth as roaming zone.

The third mass nesting site at Rushikulya River mouth is going 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. The primary issues with the visiting marine turtles would be getting a peaceful ground and the usual feed during breeding time. 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.

The ports can’t also go for plantation along the coast to minimise the impact of pollution or recreate the mangrove destroyed during building of the port infrastructure because its impact would be more fatal to the turtles. ‘Though the Orissa coast is famously known for the three mass nesting sites, Olive Ridley turtles sporadically nest all along the coastline. A choice for such sporadic nest sites by turtles may be involved which is not clearly known. And, 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.

‘Anyhow for the development of the state and its people, Orissa needs ports and they should come up. However, it’s a fact that Ports and its activities will definitely have some impact on the coastal eco-system. So, there must be proper studies undertaken and steps taken by the government to minimise the impact of such infrastructure on the plants, living beings and the total ecosystem’, says Environment Scientist Rahas Bihari Panda.

Now the question is can we, and should we, spare the marine turtle mass nesting beaches for the ports to come up? Such a desire would 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 rework on the plan of development through ports. And, there must be more studies undertaken to ensure minimum impact of such infrastructures on the coastal ecosystem so that the rare marine turtles will not be deprived of the space to mate and nest at their place of choice. Otherwise, in a few years, the tradition of mass nesting by Olive Ridley Sea Turtles would be a history for the state of Orissa.

Comment (1):

Jerry Berne, Sustainable Shorelines, Inc. (www.sustainableshorelines.org)

You are quite right to be concerned about the coastal environmental damaged caused by port construction.  This is especially true of the dredging involved for its immediate pollution caused by its spoils and for its long-term erosion of the coastline.

We, especially those rapidly developing economies, should consider more advanced technological options to traditionally developed ports.  One of the most obvious is the development of offshore ports (see my editorial for the UK's The Engineer, http://secure.theengineer.co.uk/Articles/304496/Depth+charges+.htm). 

Also of concern is the proposed embankment to "protect" some areas of Orissa's coastline.  Building a saline embankment to "protect" Orissa's coastline is needlessly expensive and potentially counterproductive typically causing more erosion by redirecting and accelerating current/wave energies.  This is especially true if the fill for this embankment is dredged from the nearshore.  Where ever the fill comes from, such a structure is going to have a negative environmental impact.

We do have proven methods of mitigating the erosion caused by navigational dredging (and that caused by beach "nourishment" --in truth, a starvation diet-- programs which also profit the dredging industry) and traditionally engineered methods.  The best documented of these is Holmberg Technologies (www.erosion.com).  Holmberg's passive, permanent systems are shown to be successful, environmentally sound and sustainable.  Holmberg's work is shown to both widen and elevate the shoreline, important attributes as sea levels rise. 

Earlier this year, I was asked to write an article on Mediterranean sea turtles for the Green Prophet website as a follow-up to my earlier interview (http://www.greenprophet.com/2010/03/05/18210/coastal-erosion-gulf/).  I differed as I am not an expert on turtles.  I do know a little on what is happening to our coastal habitats, however, and --thanks to the dredging, coastal engineering and development industries-- the news is not good.  As I continue to state, we are losing habitat, not just expensive real estate. 

Of course, it is not just certain industries at fault.  We are all contributing to climate change.  This is going to cause severe disruption of our coastal communities --both natural and manmade-- through sea level rise and increased storm intensities.  Our protective natural shoreline features are already weakened by manmade activities with dredging seemingly the most harmful of these.  As such we --both individuals and governments-- must adopt successful mitigation strategies immediately.  In the 1960's, a new dam constructed in the Amazon jungles threatened to drown all the animals trapped behind it.  Wildlife professionals, attempting to relocate as many of these animals as they could, sent out a plea for help to their associates around the world, "Time is short and the water rises."  Now, with global warming, time is  short again and the water rises for all of us.

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