On Wednesday night, twenty-two Olive Ridley Turtles were found dead on the shores of Chennai along the Bay of Bengal, India. This is in addition to the one hundred carcasses that have already washed up on Chennai’s shores over the past two weeks. Although gill nets and some other types of fishing have been prohibited by the government, the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) says fishermen are to blame.
While Olive Ridley Turtles local to the Pacific Coast of Mexico are listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act, those in other regions are only listed as Vulnerable – one step away from Endangered status – on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This listing takes into account the status of the Olive Ridley on a global level, but this assessment is from 2008. And the Olive Ridley population has been plummeting.
The Southeastern coast of India, from Odisha down to Tamil Nadu, is one of the major breeding grounds for the Olive Ridley Turtles. Every year thousands of turtles migrate and come ashore for ‘arribada,’ a mass nesting of eggs. Because of this precious event, the Gahirmatha Beach in Odisha was declared a wildlife turtle sanctuary in 1997.
But trawl nets, gill nets, purse seine nets and pair nets continue to cause thousands of turtle deaths. They catch everything within reach, including species the fishermen aren’t legally allowed to catch. Considered bycatch, these animals – including turtles – are often killed or discarded as nonprofitable. As of 2014, 40% of the world’s global catch was bycatch.
That percentage is even worse for trawl nets. Roughly 8o% of what is caught in a trawl net is bycatch and turtles make up a large part of this. Shrimp trawlers have caused the death of more than 10,000 Olive Ridleys per year along the coast of Odisha from 1999-2006. In 1997-98 over 13,575 Olive Ridleys were found along the shore. In 2016, a record high 300 Olive Ridleys were found dead on the Puri Beach, Odisha. This was also attributed to trawlers. Often they die of suffocation as the nets are pulled along and they drown, unable to come up for a breath.
Erosion brought on by climate change has also claimed the lives of Olive Ridleys. As shore lines recede, previous nesting grounds are no longer viable. Turtles are creatures of habit, returning annually to their nesting grounds. In 2012 thousands of eggs were lost on a sand bar during high tide as the beach no longer had the same coastline the turtles had used before.
Protection on paper isn’t enough to save the Olive Ridley. The turtle is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act since 1972, the Migratory Species Convention (CMS), and the Convention of International Trade on Wildlife Flora and Fauna (CITES), and their numbers continue to drop. Effective conservation policy needs to be monitored once it’s enacted. A Turtle Excluding Device (TED) can help even large turtles escape nets. But fishermen complain that these life-saving devices lose them other catch, so they often won’t use them.
Conservation can’t work if it isn’t enforced. Dealing with erosion by confronting climate change is something that we already know must be done, and yet, despite increasing evidence, it’s often downplayed in enforcement and policy.
It isn’t enough to sit on the sidelines and take records as whole species plummet toward extinction, or even to write papers notifying governments and industry of what needs to be done. We need stronger fishing laws that actually get enforced, and we need to confront climate change head-on.