Can we save sea turtles after driving away the fishing communities? 

December 2016

by Rahul Muralidharan and Aarti Sridhar (translated from Tamil. Originally published in The Tamil Hindu on 10.12.2016

In January every year, olive ridley sea turtles arrive on Tamil Nadu’s beaches to nest. This is an event happening since time immemorial but sea turtles are neither new nor fascinating to fishers because they have seen these turtles all their lives. Still, fishers would have never imagined that sea turtles would turn them into villains. In early September this year, the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department issued an order that bans all types of fishing within 5 nautical miles of the coast, across 90 villages in 8 coastal districts. This order was said to protect migrating olive ridleys, in the months between January and April. How and why did this happen? Let us take a brief look at the history of sea Turtle conservation in Tamil Nadu and examine what is at stake now for coastal fishing communities.

Creating a drama

A news article published in Times of India, titled “Murder most foul”, raised alarm over the death of 35 olive ridley turtles along the Chennai beach on a single day. This came to the attention of the Madras High Court which took up a suo moto case. Eventually the Fisheries Department produced a conservation plan but an expert appointed to audit the plan said it was inadequate. But the expert also pointed out that the plan was too harsh on small-scale fishers because it suggested banning all types of fishing around turtle nesting sites. Other conservationists agreed that boats less that 10 HP can fish in the waters during the sea turtle migration season but they demanded intensive patrolling and monitoring to control the types of fishing gear used in this season. The alarm raised by the media and audit reports and the extreme protection measures suggested by conservationists misrepresents the problem. 

History of sea turtle conservation

It all began in the 1970s when members of the Madras Snake Park and Madras Crocodile Bank Trust walked the beaches of Chennai to document sea turtles and their threats – Tamil Nadu emerged as one of the birthplaces of sea turtle conservation in India.

Female olive ridley sea turtles use the beach as their nesting place. To protect their eggs from being eaten, people would relocate it to a hatchery where the eggs incubated over the next 45 days. Over the years, several fishers began to participate by walking the beaches at night and helping conservationists maintain these hatcheries. Many people came and went, but finally a group of student volunteers got together to establish the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) in 1988 which is functional until this day.

Later groups such as the TREE Foundation also took the help of local fishing communities to do conservation. For instance, the release of hatchlings after 45 days of incubation is celebrated as a public event where large numbers of both children and adults participate. 

Local fishing communities have been an important part of this and also serve as educators to other people who see sea turtles for the first time in the lives. But the latest fishing ban issued by the Fisheries Department, to protect turtles, is unjust and has damaged this relationship between local people and turtles. If local fishers are not the problem, where then does the real problem lie? 

The state of marine resources in Tamil Nadu

If you ask small-scale fishers about the state of fisheries and their livelihoods, they will tell you that they are living in depressing times. Tamil Nadu was one of the first states in the country to promote modern fishing technologies such as mechanised bottom trawling and synthetic fishing gear. But such changes were unregulated and resulted in conflicts between bottom trawlers and small-scale fishers, because they all operated in the same near-shore areas. Unionized protests by the small-scale fishers resulted in the Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, 1983 which secures 3 nautical miles for small-scale fishing, but this has rarely been enforced. But now, this new Fisheries Department order places sea turtles protection in the forefront rather than the livelihood concerns of the fishers and what is more, it extends the ban to 5 nautical miles. It is incorrect and strange that a law originally intended to protect small-scale fishers is now being used against them. This definitely needs to be challenged.

Conservation futures

While the protection and conservation of nesting sea turtles is important, at the same time ensuring sustainable livelihoods in the already burdened fisheries sector is essential. 

Just banning fishing along the coast is simply not an answer. Conservationists need to come up with solutions that are socially just and environmentally sound, to strengthen existing relationships between sea turtles and fishing communities rather than breaking them. 

SSTCN’s sea turtle records for the past 30 years show that Tamil Nadu’s sea turtle nesting population is stable. This success needs to be seen as the result of conservationists and fishing communities working hand-in-hand to secure sea turtle populations. Conservationists and the fisheries department need to come up with better management strategies for the marine environment. How can we get them to do so without banning all fishing?