Navin Srinivas, software professional and a volunteer on a night patrol last week along the Injambakkam beach, found a female turtle dead with its belly open. Closer to the city, a young volunteer for Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), found a few dead hatchlings near Elliots beach.
The two incidents are typical of the causes of the death of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles that visit the city's beaches every year for nesting - the fishing nets that offer no escape for the turtles and the city lighting that lures turtle hatchlings into getting trapped in debris.
“The mortality rate is a cause of concern,” says Akila Balu, co-ordinator, SSTCN. To identify the nests and incubate the eggs in hatcheries, the student volunteers are patrolling the beaches from Besant Nagar to Neelangarai, in two shifts, every night and early morning.
At the beginning of the nesting season, Chief Wildlife Warden R. Sundararaju ordered the switching off of mast lights to prevent hatchlings from wandering towards the city instead of the sea. SSTCN volunteers have found over 50 nests this season and.
Tree Foundation, an NGO that operates through its Sea Turtle Protection Force comprising mainly of youth from the fishing communities from Neelankarai to Marakkanam, has buried about 80 sea turtles this season and is incubating over 80 nests in its hatcheries, says Supraja Dharini, chairperson, Tree Foundation.
As the beach profile this year is steep, fishermen have noticed turtles returning to the sea without nesting. A study by Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) has revealed that the density of nests has come down from 100 a kilometre to 10 nests in a kilometre over the years. In parts of the State's southern coast, sea turtles have become locally extinct, says Ms. Akila.
“The trawlers should have Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) to enable the turtles caught in the fishing nets to escape to safety,” says Ms. Dharini. TEDs cost Rs 15,000 each. Ms. Akila says the Fisheries Department has to effectively monitor the use of TED nets by the fishermen as they might not use it due to loss of a percentage of catch.
The Forest Department and Fisheries Department are exploring the possibility of compensating the fishermen on the lines of the model adopted in Gujarat wherein they will lift their nets every hour to release sea turtles caught in them. Usually, the nets are submerged for three to four hours and the sea turtles which have to come up to the surface once every 45 minutes for breathing, get trapped and die.
Marking the location with GPS, the fishermen could use their mobile cameras to shoot pictures of the turtle in the net and of it being released to claim compensation. “The framework is being worked out. A proposal will be submitted,” said a senior Forest Department official.