Last Monday, the carcass of an Olive Ridley turtle was washed ashore on Marve beach in Malad, not very far from where I stay. I have lived in Malad all my life. As a child, I would often go to the beach to play with my friends. Today, plastic debris and cow dung have made it filthy, and unfit even for a leisurely stroll.
As an animal lover and an active member of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), news reports like the one of the Olive Ridley or of several dead marine animals, including that of a dead dolphin that was thrown up at Bandstand a month ago, are very disturbing.
Experts estimate that more than 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean. More than 80% of the plastic found in the oceans, comes from land. This plastic travels through storm drains into streams and rivers. Often, shreds of plastic also fly away from landfills into our seas. As a result, thousands of sea turtles accidentally swallow these plastics, mistaking them for food. For instance, leatherback turtles cannot distinguish between floating jellyfish — a main component of their diet — and floating plastic bags.
While most of the waste in the ocean is recognisable: plastic bags, balloons, bottles, degraded buoys, plastic packaging, and food wrappers; some plastics aren’t too easy to see. In fact, certain plastics are so small that they are invisible to the naked eye. If sea turtles ingest these particles, they are at a risk of either starving or falling sick.
Dead turtles and whales from trawling nets, the ones that are hit by propellers or big boats, and the ones who have died from eating plastic debris in the ocean, are the ones that are continuously being washed up on our city shores.
Reports suggest that each year hundreds of adult and immature sea turtles are accidentally captured in fisheries ranging from highly mechanised operations to small-scale fishermen around the world. Global estimates of annual capture, injury and mortality are staggering. They say that at least 1,50,000 turtles of all species are killed in shrimp trawls.
Taking cognisance of this, the US government worked with the commercial shrimp trawl industry to develop Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). They comprise a grid of bars with an opening, either at the top or the bottom of the trawl net. The grid is fitted into the neck of a shrimp trawl. Small animals such as shrimps, pass through the bars and are caught in the bag end of the trawl. When larger animals, such as marine turtles and sharks are captured in the trawl, they strike the grid bars and are ejected through the opening. Today, all trawlers are required to put Turtle Excluder Devices in their trawl nets. Unfortunately, not all fishermen comply with the law, and sea turtles continue to drown in shrimp nets.
Back home, the state department needs to seriously look into the death of marine animals; 11 in less than three months is a worrisome number. Besides, there is also a need to sensitise people to respect our marine wealth, including whales, sharks, dolphins , tortoises and turtles.
For instance, in places like Velas in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, locals used to dig out turtle eggs not only for consumption but also for commercial purposes. Selling turtle eggs was turning into a big business there. However, Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra, an NGO working in that region, educated the locals against it. Today, egg poaching has completely stopped in Velas.
We need more such inspiring examples that strengthen our belief in preserving our marine ecosystem.
(Martin Correa lives in Malad. He is a BNHS member)