Third leatherback turtle sighting reported in Maharashtra in 35 years
Fishermen in Palghar district inadvertently caught and released an endangered leatherback turtle (dermochelys coriacea) into the ocean on March 12 this year, about 70 to 80 nautical miles off the coast of Narpada village in Dahanu. The incident was brought to the attention of the forest department’s mangrove cell earlier this week. It marks the third record of the species in Maharashtra in 35 years and the second record with photographic evidence.
Previously, a leatherback turtle had been captured and released by fishermen at Raigad’s Bharadkol beach in July 2019. The first-ever record of the species in Maharashtra, however, dates back to 1985 when a four-and-a-half foot long specimen was found on Devbagh beach in Malvan, as per the records of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI).
The leatherback turtle is a Schedule-I species under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. This particular species of oceanic turtle is also listed as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Marine biologists from the Mangrove Foundation explained that little is known about the species’ occurrence along India’s west coast and that they are known to nest in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They are the largest of the seven oceanic turtle species and can grow six feet in length and weigh over 500 kg.
Within the wider Indian Ocean region, they are also known to nest in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and South Africa. As per the IUCN, the status of the species in the northeast Indian Ocean is categorised as “data deficient”, while in southwest Indian Ocean they are categorised as “critically endangered”.
“There is very little data about the species from India’s west coast, so it is definitely exciting to see them. While these sightings are uncommon, the two in the recent past have come from fishers. We should engage more with fishing communities to try and understand how often they see it. Perhaps that could be a first step to understand their distribution.” said Shaunak Modi from the Coastal Conservation Foundation.
Modi’s view was echoed by Dhanashree Bagade, a marine biologist with Mangrove Foundation, who said, “There are several questions that an incident like this prompts. Is the turtle feeding in the area? Are they nesting? Is the area part of a migratory route that we don’t know about? Unfortunately we do not have answers just yet. Further study is required.”
Prakash Tandel, the fisherman who released the turtle into the water on March 12 and filmed the process, will be entitled to a compensation of ₹25,000 under a scheme launched by the state government in December 2018 which reimburses fisherfolks for damage sustained to fishing equipment when an endangered marine animal has to be released. A total of 178 endangered marine organisms have been released after incidental capture under the scheme so far.
Around 10 years ago, researchers also documented leatherback turtle nests in Raigad and Sindhudurg districts, but were unable to establish that they were nesting in the area. A similar incidental capture of a leatherback turtle was also reported from Kerala in 2008, albeit without photographic evidence.