Op-Ed: Homo Sapiens To Blame For The Plight of Aquatic Species In The State

Bhubaneswar: The recent dolphin survey in the state threw up some startling figures. The number of these human-friendly mammals in Odisha’s known aquatic ecosystems, has fallen alarmingly, coming down from 469 in 2018 to 259 this year. The census covered the Chilika lake, India’s largest brackish water lagoon straddling Puri, Khurda and Ganjam districts, the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary and its nearby areas within the Bhitarkanika National Park and the mouth of the Rushukulya River in Ganjam.

Three dolphin species–Irrawaddy, the Bottle Nose and the Humpback—were sighted during the count which showed that Gahirmatha has the largest concentration of these eco-sensitive creatures. It had more dolphins than Chilika, the lake that draws hordes of tourists eager to catch a glimpse of these animals.

While poor weather conditions hampering sighting during census and the possibility of some of these creatures having migrated to the deep sea have been cited as some of the factors behind the low count, there has hardly been any attempt to analyse the human factor that could have contributed to the phenomenon.

Everyday hundreds of boats carrying pop-eyed tourists churn the waters of Chilika, almost all of these on dolphin sighting missions. Often overloaded these boats with outboard engines try to come as close to the hapless species as possible. Everyone wants to capture a dolphin jumping out of water in the camera. There are attempts at taking selfies. The income of the boatman depends on that. The nearer he can get his customers to these mammals the more he earns.

Looking for a spot of fun and some selfie moments these visitors do not realise the kind of damage they are inflicting on the eco-sensitive dolphins who are slow breeders and whose reproduction cycle gets adversely affected by the stress resulting from constantly being chased by tourist-laden boats.

This is not to suggest that there has been no effort on the part of authorities to regulate the movements of these boats within the lake, especially in the dolphin sighting zone. In fact the Chilika Development Authority (CDA), the organisation that is supposed to maintain the ecological health of the water body that happens to be a Ramsar site, had drafted a dolphin watching protocol which listed out the precautions the boatmen must take while ferrying customers to areas where these mammals are most numerous in the lake.

But the problem lies with enforcement. The CDA’s mandate apparently is limited to making suggestions and organising consultations with the local boatmen and fisher-folk, but it cannot take any coercive measures. As a result the protocol is being observed more in its violation and boats continue to take a toll on dolphins.

Human interference has proved similarly disastrous in the case of Olive Ridley turtles, the flagship marine species of the state. Every year carcasses of hundreds of these turtles are found strewn along the coastline stretching from Ganjam to Dhamra.

Odisha boasts of three rookeries of Olive Ridley turtles which traverse thousands of miles in the sea to reach the state coast during their mating and breeding season. While the Gahirmatha coast in Kendrapara happens to be the biggest rookery of these turtles in the world the two others are located on Devi and Rushikulya river mouths.

Illegal fishing, specially trawler fishing, has been the bane of these slow moving animals who mate in on-shore waters before moving on to the beaches along the coast for nesting. A large number of them perish after getting caught in the gill-nets of the trawlers while others succumb to the propeller blows of these vessels.

The state government imposes a fishing ban within a certain area of the sea each year during the mating and breeding season of the turtles but these restrictions are flouted openly. Unless the government succeeds in enforcing its own ban, Odisha coast would continue to be the graveyard of Olive Ridley turtles. The fact is, be it turtles or the dolphins the blame for their current plight lay with us, the homo sapiens.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)