A three-year long study to understand the impact of oil exploration and rampant fishing on Olive Ridley Turtles and marine life off the east coast of India is being conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
Unofficial estimates are that over one-lakh turtles have died in Orissa alone in the last decade due to use of trawlers for fishing.
The turtles exclusive to three nesting sites in Orissa, Gahirmath in the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, the mouth of river Rushikulya and mouth of river of river Devi, have been victims of fishing close to the coast and oil exploration activity.
While there have been several independent studies (mostly by foreign organisations) on the turtles, the WII study will be first of its kind in its magnitude by a government agency. Orissa government in 2001 conducted a small study on turtles in river Rushikulya in 2001 and found that turtles migrate from areas under heavy fishing activity.
According to PR Sinha, Director (WII), the movement pattern of turtles on the eastern coast till Sri Lanka will be studied over a period of three years. “We are in the process of setting up infrastructure to start research by the year end,” he told Hindustan Times.
The study gains significance as Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas has plans for major oil exploration on the eastern coast. “The territory is still largely unexplored though some private firms like Reliance are working on some oil exploration projects,” a ministry official said.
The Ministry of Environment and Forest officials said that WII study would play a pivotal role in allowing environment clearance for future projects on eastern coast. Also, India does not have extensive research on impact on sea life and its degradation because of human activities. “We expect the study to provide some useful inputs as entire coast is being covered,” a ministry official said.
There is, however, substantial research on the degradation of the coastal belt. One such study in Kutch earlier this year reported huge loss of marine life because of oil spills.
According to Sinha, radio collaring of 70 turtles on the eastern coast will be done and their movements will be recorded for a period of two years. As the turtles travel large distance and many times till Sri Lanka, the data generated will provide useful information, Sinha said. Their movement will be tracked using satellite imagery. In addition to radio collaring, studies on the beaches near the nesting sites will be also conducted.
The study sponsored by Director General Hydrocarbons at a cost of Rs three crore will influence government policy for future oil exploration in the Indian seas. Number of NGOs have protested against giving oil exploration contracts off the coast of Orissa by the ministry of petroleum in the past few years NGOs like Greenpeace have run global campaigns against the government’s oil exploration policy.
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