Orphans in the wild: What the otters are trying to tell us about our oceans
In the pale light of dawn, eight otters swim out of their dens in search of fish. They swish down the creek, sheltered by thick mangrove trees, and arrive at the mouth of the bay. Suddenly, it’s chaos.
An otter cub strays from the pack and starts to chew on a plastic bottle. Around him, milk sachets, plastic packets, thermocol and other debris bob in the water.
An adult otter starts trying to nudge the cub away from the trash, when a large fishing boat cuts between them. The screams of the cub can be heard over the chugging diesel engine. The baby has been caught in the net hanging loose from the boat.
“Chances are the cub will only be found hours later, when the fishermen unfurl their nets,” says Nagesh Daptardar, a wildlife warden in Sindhudurg, coastal Maharashtra. “They may call the local forest office, but since there are just two people manning the 80,000-hectare area of the district, the cub is usually left at the mouth of the nearest creek and may die from dehydration and fear.”
The other seven otters, meanwhile, have turned tail and headed home distraught and hungry.
Chances are, you didn’t even know there were otters nesting along the Indian coast. The first study on the local otter population was completed in 2017, a first-of-its kind survey that counted 500 of the smooth-coated marine animals along the Konkan coast.
Even if they weren’t classified as endangered under India’s Wildlife Protection Act and as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, they would be in trouble here.
This stretch of coastline was, until recently, marked by pristine beaches scantily populated. The past decade has seen rapid urbanisation and industrialisation.
Plastic waste is starting to line the coast; debris from sand mining is choking the mangroves; pesticide runoff is polluting the water.
Ramdas Kokare, former Vengurla municipal council chief, estimates that about 1,500 kg of domestic waste is dumped across different creeks in the district, every day.
And it’s not just otters in danger; 561 Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins have been counted along the Sindhudurg coast. There are also porpoises and whales in these waters.
“Owing to a lack of scientific studies along this region, we are not really aware of how many species, be it endangered, vulnerable, or nearly threatened, exist in these areas. The threats identified based on impact visible along our coasts, and they represent a fraction of what is happening in our oceans,” says E Vivekanandan, scientist and marine biologist at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute.
Even given its vast and unfathomable scale, there are resources available for the study of marine ecosystems. “But a lack of intent from governments means that there isn’t the necessary funding or deputing of dedicated scientists for such study. This has led to a vacuum of information, understanding, and effective conservation,” says Arnab Das, a former commander with the Indian Navy and director of the Maritime Research Centre of the Indian Maritime Foundation.
“While there are no studies on light pollution, various studies related to noise pollution carried out by us revealed that seismic surveys to search for oil or shipping noise over 200 decibels could lead to instant death for marine species. We have also studied the effects of oil pollution on the surface of creeks and on the ocean floor, and found it to be a major cause of mammal deaths along the western coast.”
In Sindhudurg, already the pollution is shrinking mangrove cover, taking away a source of shelter and food, shrinking hunting grounds and forcing marine species further and further outside their territories in search of fish, says Satish Pande, a marine scientist and director of the Ela Foundation in Pune, which conducted the otter survey.
Parts of the coastline should be made sacrosanct, scientists say. “Similar to what has been done in Thane, where a flamingo sanctuary has been created to protect those migratory birds, areas along the Konkan coastline need to get protection status. It is the only way to safeguard these ecosystems,” says Vivekanandan.
Instead, there is a massive plan to develop the coast as a tourism hub.
HT travelled down 90km of the 120-km coastline of Sindhudurg, across eight of the 12 creeks, tracking the threats across three talukas – Devgad, Malvan and Vengurla.
Sand mining was changing fish feeding patterns and depositing layers of sand on mangroves. Diesel from the fishing boats’ engines coated the water; trawlers with large nets like the one that trapped the baby otter had, just recently, also trapped a sawfish and a whale shark, both needless casualties, and both protected species.
“These trawlers are unregulated,” says wildlife warden Nagesh Daptardar. “We have highlighted this issue to the state government.”
The mining and garbage issues particularly are choking mangroves, says Satish Pande of the Ela Foundation.
Across the 12 creeks, boats mine sand daily for use at construction sites across Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat. The mining is based on permits granted three years ago, even though such mining is, under Coastal Regulation Zone rules, supposed to be monitored closely by the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB) and the district collector.
Illegal sand mining has been listed as a major environmental concern across 70% of the world’s beaches, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. It contributes to major land erosion, affecting marine ecosystems and tide patterns.
Asked about the mining observed in the Sindhudurg creeks, district collector Uday Chaudhari said a total of Rs 1 crore in fines and revenue was collected from sand mining from across the district over the past year.
“It is banned for commercial purposes, and beach sand mining is not allowed at all,” he added. “We are aware about threats of sand mining and have been receiving four or five complaints every month for the past two years. We are taking all possible measures to protect the biodiversity. However, our department is only authorized to collect revenue for mining purposes on behalf of the state government. If there are any illegal activities taking place in the ecologically sensitive areas, the respective departments that issues permissions are responsible for taking care of this, be it the forest department or the MMB.”
MMB officials passed the buck back to the collector’s office. “We do not issue any jurisdiction over the activity of sand mining. We are a technical agency that only identifies how much sand is available to be dredged and issues a no-objection certificate for the same. Beyond this, it is the state environment department and the district collector’s prerogative to issue permissions for mining or dredging,” said Vikram Kumar, chief executive officer, MMB. “We conduct hydrographic surveys and ensure minimal sand is removed from locations so that the coastal ecosystem is not affected.”
One priority multiple departments of the government seem to agree on is tourism development.
At relatively high-footfall attractions such as the Vijaydurg fort and Tarkarli beach have seen numbers rise from 3.5 lakh a year in 2008 to 13 lakh in 2017.
There is now a proposal to boost this further, by encouraging the construction of hotels, promenades and recreational facilities that include water sports.
Tarkarli is considered a role model in this respect. Hundreds throng here every weekend; thousands on public holidays. On offer along the coast is a cocktail of water sports such as parasailing, jet-skiing, kayaking, speed-boating (with the option of dolphin-spotting) and scuba-diving. For the state-appointed protectors of wildlife, like wildlife warden Nagesh Daptardar, this is cause for alarm.
“The negative impact of tourism is clearly visible in this area, with the diving activity directly affecting corals and underwater life. Noise pollution from boats and jet-skis is pushing mammals like the otter deeper into the mangroves, and since there is no focused monitoring of these activities, the inflow of trash has increased manifold,” Daptardar says.
The Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation responded to questions by saying the Sindhudurg coastline had the potential to become an international tourism destination. “With an increase in tourist inflow, there will be an increase in revenue, which will automatically help boost conservation efforts and protect the rich biodiversity in this area in the coming decades,” said MTDC managing director Vijay Waghmare. “We have tied up with the local public works department to ensure better connectivity of roads so that alternative tourism destinations that are currently unexplored are opened up and the tourist population is evenly distributed.”
With Goa less than 30km away from Shiroda, the southernmost beach in Sindhudurg, locals are excited by the idea that it could take just five years for this coastline to become contiguous with that party state’s.
Marine specialists point out that each coastal district in Maharashtra should instead be setting up a dedicated cell to protect these delicately balanced ecosystems. “The central government needs to make it mandatory for all coastal states to depute regional scientists to take stock of all marine species and document their deaths, as is done for territorial wildlife,” says Das of the Indian Maritime Foundation. “State departments also need to coordinate with each other to regulate and control tourism and other environmental threats. Areas need to be demarcated as marine sanctuaries. And these efforts need to be undertaken as soon as possible, before such native species are decimated beyond recovery.”