Just seven species make up the known diversity of the world's sea turtles today, but these evolutionary marvels are encountering a growing number of threats. The marine reptiles, all of them endangered, have persisted for millions of years, moving from the sea to land for nesting, and traversing the great tropical and sub-tropical ocean basins as part of their life cycles. Yet, as the 30th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation held recently in Goa has highlighted, the modern human-dominated era poses grave challenges for their survival. With each passing year, nesting habitat is degraded or lost, feeding grounds are polluted, more turtles die in mechanised fisheries, and the threat of mindless port development looms large. Two environmental crises in the past few weeks highlight the dangers. The large oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has turned the major feeding grounds of the rare Kemp's Ridley turtle into a veritable death zone. In South Asia, which hosts five species, thousands of Olive Ridleys making their annual journey to Orissa's Rushikulya rookery for nesting had to suffer the effects of a massive oil leak from a ship in the Ganjam port. If a healthy population of turtles must survive into the future, there is a need for a new conservation paradigm.
The first-order priority is to identify and protect the nesting habitat of sea turtles on the Indian coastline. This can be achieved through a full environmental audit of all port projects. If the proposals discussed at the Goa symposium are accurate, no fewer than 331 ports are planned, and notifications have been issued for over 200. The scale of coastal development warrants an aggressive conservationist stance on the part of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. To its credit, the MoEF has supported the International Sea Turtle Society in organising the global symposium, for the first time in the country. It must now strike a blow for protection by enforcing environmental norms. For a start, it can declare the ‘no development zone' of 10 kilometres around turtle nesting beaches, and the 25-km buffer zone that conservation biologists suggest. This needs to cover all new port projects and the expansion of existing ones. A second priority relates to fisheries. While artisanal low-intensity fishing in sensitive zones does not appear to be unsustainable, the catchall ferocity of mechanised boats is killing vast numbers of turtles. A regime of restrictions is, therefore, justified. This should set seasonal curbs for intensive commercial fishing, enforce regulations on turtle excluder devices, and control trawler density. Only determined measures can save these wonderful creatures.