The Lakshadweep Islands, an archipelago about 400 kilometres off the coast of India’s Kerala, are facing a peculiar problem. While the green sea turtle is considered endangered globally by IUCN, these islands, rich with coral reefs and seagrass, have seen an increase in population since the early 2000s.
This resulted in a complex conflict. More green sea turtles mean eating more of their favourite seagrass, which leaves little cover for other reef fishes that the local fishers rely on for consumption. Noticing a decline in catch, fishers have been building a negative perception about the turtles, even resulting in rare, isolated cases of physical harm to the animals.
For the past two years, efforts have been made to reduce the conflict. “This requires cooperation from local and state agencies,” says Muralidharan M, Field Director at Dakshin Foundation, one of the NGOs working in Lakshadweep towards these efforts. They are currently monitoring the turtles to understand this grossly understudied perceived adversary and discussing ways to protect the seagrass. These steps are integral to a healthier ecosystem which can increase carbon sequestration in the oceans.
Cause for conflict
“It is challenging to seek the appropriate permissions from the government to study these animals,” explains Muralidharan. It’s no surprise then that while green sea turtles can be found on the west coast and island groups of India, few reliable assessments of their population trends and status are available. Without enough information on how many sea turtles might be foraging in the lagoons, what they eat, and where they swim to, making headway with solutions is a difficult task.
Turtles often chase the fish away from the fishing net, or even worse, cut through the net if they’re accidentally caught. Replacing these nets is expensive, costing about INR 1800 (USD 24). “To keep the turtles away while fishing, fishers would lightly hit the turtle’s shell or make loud noises. There was only one time that someone mentioned finding a carcass on the beach,” says Nupur Kale, currently Project Associate with WCS-India, who led this monitoring project while working with Dakshin.
The 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, which prohibits hunting of numerous animal species, including the green sea turtle, could have also attached negative associations. “Even accidentally catching the turtle had a threat of arrest,” Muralidharan says. “Moreover, with the extreme protection that accompanied the Act, the turtles were now seen as belonging to the government and a problem that the government should fix.”
Understanding the turtles
The monitoring project is attempting to change this negative perception by involving the communities in the sea turtle monitoring. The boatmen help map areas that are commonly used by fishers and the turtles. Local divemasters have also been roped in to take photos of turtles’ facial patterns, which, like fingerprints, are unique to each individual. “With this, the communities are not beneficiaries of this project alone, but also own a stake in this monitoring,” says Muralidharan.
The project is currently monitoring the sea turtle’s distribution in Lakshadweep, their diet, and movement patterns between islands using GPS-tags, metal flipper tags and photographs. Maps tracking the turtles’ movements are distributed to the fishers to see if avoiding the turtles’ paths could reduce encounters with them.
“This project is also about talking with the communities about why sea turtles are a flagship species, how it’s a part of the larger coastal ecology, and of course, how it impacts the fishers’ livelihoods,” says Sarita Farnandes, a coastal policy researcher and Managing Trustee of Morjim Sea Turtle Trust.
Local conservation groups have also been connected with the Turtle Action Group. At present, there are 27 NGO members in the group that meet for workshops and meetings around turtle conversation, exchange experience, and information. With this, conflict mitigation, and the conservation of sea turtles, there is a dialogue beginning that goes deeper than just this ongoing project.