There was high drama near Chennai’s Ennore Port when British LPG vessel BW Maple collided with Indian oil and chemical tanker MT Kancheepuram on January 28.It resulted in an oil spill that blackened the city’s coastline, leaving in its wake aquatic life gasping for breath and dying.
The accident and the subsequent oil spill made headlines with extreme reactions from environmentalists and fisher folk even as the port management tried to come to terms with the man-made disaster. This kind of damage shows that the marine ecosystem is being systemically abused and degraded every day leading to all kinds of problems, the foremost being the depleting quantities of fish in the sea.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists 368 marine species which are either endangered already or vulnerable of becoming endangered very soon. The list includes the Hawksbill Turtle, Hammerhead Shark, Blue Whale, Florida Manatee, Kemp’s Ridley Turtle and Fraser’s Dolphin.
From an Indian standpoint, we are not faring too well either with many freshwaters and marine species being exploited senselessly. This is especially true of sharks and pelagic fish species in Indian waters.
However, it may be a bit premature to conclude that some of the fish species are looking straight down the barrel of the extinction gun.
Explains marine researcher Mayuresh Gangal, whose work revolves around fisheries, “Compared to land, endemism in oceans, which are all connected, is quite low. For example, the Lion-tailed Macaque might be found only in certain parts of the Western Ghats, but lots of marine fish are found everywhere in the oceans. What occurs is economic and ecological extinction. In the case of economic extinction, a fish becomes so rare that it is economically not viable to catch it anymore. In ecological extinction, the species does not perform the role that it used to, in the ecosystem. Shark is a good example. It used to play the role of top predators by keeping numbers of small fish in check. But they have been fished out so much that they are no longer able to play the role in many places. Similarly, in some Caribbean islands, the grouper fish got so overfished that it no longer acts as a top predator.”
It could also amount to a tactical error when one views the marine system from the same lens as one does terrestrial systems, as in the case of the latter, every acre of land is owned and managed in some way. But the sea is deemed an open active resource where one can go anywhere and pull up as much as one can. It’s not treated like an area that needs to be conserved as much as it is a food provider.
Aaron Savio Lobo, a marine conservationist who has been studying fisheries sustainability, says, “It is this bipolar ethic that trickles down as to how we structure our policies. The sea is managed to maximise fish production. Yes, it is food, but we are missing the point that it is a wild area that needs conservation. Fish is wildlife just like any other species. If one were to go shooting parakeets and sparrows in the city, officials will question why. But one could literally catch thousands of tonnes of fish every day and it would be considered good, bringing in foreign revenue, increasing GDP and so on.”
The neglect of the marine ecosystems can be directly linked to the depleting fish population in the waters. Dr Sathya Narayana, a coral reef researcher and a scuba diver with Zoological Survey of India who has trained people in coral taxonomy, says neglect of coral reefs in the country has had a detrimental effect on sea fisheries.
“Though coral reefs occupy only 2 per cent of the earth’s surface, 25 per cent of the fish yield comes from here with 65 per cent of the fisheries dependent on the reefs. They are the largest living construction by any living organism. Australia’s The Great Barrier Reef is even longer than the Great Wall of China, which is deemed the largest construction by man,” says Narayana.
He adds that corals in The Great Barrier Reef are predicted to vanish in the next 50 years. “Corals are small flower-like animals in the tissues of corals. Thanks to global warming, when the temperature in the water increases or where there is much physio-chemical variation, the plants are thrown out of the coral body, and without food, the corals die,” explains Narayana.
Too many boats seem to be chasing too few fish. Traditional fishermen in Kerala allege that boats from Tamil Nadu, which are better-equipped, are fishing off the Kerala coast in higher numbers. The state cannot ban these people from fishing, even though the fishermen have called for it. Fishermen, especially the traditional variety, have also been demanding a regulation on the number of fishing boats, a measure they think will stop over-exploitation.
“There are a lot of boats now and many come to the trade without an adequate understanding of it,” says 66-year-old Sarasan, a fisherman from Kollam in Kerala, who has been working for 40 years.
Hirayna Jena, resident of Sipakuda, an island close to the mouth of the Chilika lagoon, says thanks to unrestricted fishing off Odisha’s coast, the spawning grounds have been destroyed with landing taking a beating.
“Last year, Bagda and Kantala varieties of prawn, which Chilika is famous for, saw a drop in catch. Varieties like Sahala and Bekta are gone. There used to be one called Bata, each weighing about 4-5 kg, but it has disappeared,” he says.
It’s tough going along the Kerala coast, where the catch has gone down considerably across all major species in the past year. The state government has acceded that the catch dropped by 80,000 tonnes in 2016. The highest dip has been that of sardine, popular in the low-income groups (it’s called ‘makkalepotti’, roughly translated as ‘fish that sustains growing kids’ in poor households), for its affordability and as a main source of protein.
“The catch of all pelagic fish has gone down. There is no profit as the sales are just enough to cover the price of diesel, workers’ wages and other expenditure,” says Sarasan. Over-exploitation and juvenile fishing are the main reasons behind dwindling fish wealth. In a first, the Kerala government has implemented the minimum legal size, below which it is illegal to catch a fish, on 58 species as recommended by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Kochi.
The biggest threat to marine life is from mechanised vessels such as trawlers that are destroying fisheries along coasts. Says Lobo, “These heavy industrial fishing vessels are capable of pulling entire ecosystems into the net. They mostly target small fish such as shrimps and prawns, but end up catching whatever crawls into their net. It’s like running a bulldozer through an evergreen forest to catch a few squirrels and ending up catching birds and tigers.”
The resultant bycatch ends up as fodder for the chicken industry. It’s probably practices like these that are responsible for the extinction of dugongs from sea grass meadows in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Says Kelkar, “We found that dugong occupancy had declined to less than 10 per cent of the sea grass meadows surveyed in the archipelago. We also identified that bycatch in gillnets and targeted hunting were the major drivers of local extinction of dugongs from many areas, which had no dugongs despite having extensive sea grass meadows.”
The dugong is vulnerable globally, but in India, it is at the very edge. There are only three disjunct and small populations—in the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The Chilika lagoon is also seeing some trawler action.
“Earlier, fishermen from Penthakata, Arakhakuda and Paradip would come to territorial waters off the Chilika coast for fishing. These days, big trawlers from West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu take the lion’s share as they use destructive fishing practices and equipment. The productive zones are destroyed and small fishermen are the most affected,” says Jena.
Another serious threat to marine life and fish resources in Indian waters is pollution. CMFRI scientists say intense stress due to human habitation and unscientific practices are causing the fish to move from shallow waters to the deep. “Most of the fish species use the shallow water for laying eggs. Pollution here means spawning fish will get affected and the numbers will come down,” says a senior scientist.
Besides coastal pollution, adverse effects of El Nino on fish catch and extreme weather such as cyclone storm Vardah have affected thousands of fishermen on the Coromandel Coast. The oil spill near the Chennai harbour has made their lives a living hell. The domestic markets have collapsed and exporters have been put to scrutiny due to fear of contamination.
K Bharati, leader of South Indian Fishermen Welfare Association, says the oil spill has crippled the livelihood of the community. “Not many are venturing into the sea in fear of stock going unsold. Fishermen spend at least Rs 1,500 per trip on diesel and labour, which could backfire if there is no demand for the fish. People are now opting to bank on cephalopods like squid, which fetch good price from exporters.”
Another scourge of the marine environment is plastic. “About seven billion tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year. Studies by CMFRI indicate that plastic has been damaging near-shore habitats that serve as breeding/feeding grounds for commercially important fishes. Sea birds and small fish varieties like anchovy and sardine feed on small pieces of plastic. Large plastic sheets have been found in the stomach of mackerel, tuna, queen fish, ribbon fish and whale,” says V Kripa, principal scientist with CMFRI, Kochi.
A crisis in one place might translate into a windfall for another. The Chennai oil spill has increased expectations of fishermen along the Karnataka coast, the reason being that when the marine ecology is polluted, most fishes flee to safe locations. The increased expectation also is based on the fact that total fish catch in the 320-km Karnataka coastline had increased by 18 per cent in 2016. The paradox, however, is that the increase in marine fish production like that of silver moon, sardines, cat fish, ribbon, threadfin breams, prawns and pomfret has been offset by the huge operational expenses incurred.
“The increase in cost of net materials, diesel, ice, labour, overhead charges for post-harvesting, among others, had made fishing an expensive activity. Thus the number of boats venturing into sea also had declined,’’ says Vasudev Boloor, Vice Chairperson of National Fishworkers Forum, Mangaluru.
Prof Ramachandra Bhatta, emeritus scientist (Economics), Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s College of Fisheries in Mangaluru, says, “Deep sea fishing contributes nearly 60 to 70 per cent of total catch. Thus total marine fish production would have increased, but the overall commercial value could be still stagnating.”
Besides marine aquatic life, we criminally neglect our freshwater ecosystems and species. Often, we separate rivers from the sea, forgetting that their biodiversities are interconnected and interdependent. “We believe that rivers are meant to be controlled and exploited for water only, and we forget that they have their own lives too,” says Kelkar.
The oceans, seas, beaches and coasts, rivers and lakes—the entire marine ecosystem plays a vital role in our sustenance and its importance can never be overemphasised. Are we preserving it, is the question.
“We have a robust legal framework. The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 also affords protection to whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and some species of sharks, stingrays, sea cucumbers, coral reefs, etc. We also have safeguards to prevent marine pollution and coastal zone encroachment. However, there is no monitoring with any concerted effort by government agencies with hardly any serious attention to conservation or incentives to avoid overfishing and wanton destruction of near-shore ecosystems,” says Kelkar.
Marine scientist Antonio Mascarenhas, who retired from the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, has been engaged in the study of Indian coasts and the problems plaguing the coastal environment since 1995.
“We surveyed the entire coast of Goa, including rivers and backwaters. A report was submitted and that is how the Goa Coastal Zone Management Plan came into being,” says Mascarenhas whose research proved the ecological importance of sand dunes with the latter being included under the category of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) 1. “Our government has ridiculous schemes to build seawalls all along the coastline to prevent cyclone and tsunami-caused destruction of property, but cannot see that mangrove walls that already existed have been destroyed,” says Kelkar.
Along with government regulation and laws, Gangal suggests the individual takes responsibility.
“Outreach is the answer to marine conservation; it is the basis for any kind of action. One can contribute by changing one’s lifestyle. If people know the seasons when certain fish are breeding, they can avoid eating it,” he says.
Sea of Danger
The biggest threat to fisheries and marine resources throws the entire marine ecosystem in disarray. For example, large predatory sharks which kept fish population in check have been overfished and disappeared from tropical seas. Overzealous fishing means that fishing is done in an indiscriminate manner with juvenile fishes also getting caught. It has made many fish species become endangered
Trawlers catch small fish such as prawns but in the bargain all kinds of marine life end up in the nets. The targeted fish are retained while the remaining, termed as by-catch, is thrown away. It is akin to hunting for a few squirrels and ending up with tigers, birds etc. Naturally, this causes great imbalance in the ecosystem.
It not only affects humans but marine life as well. In the case of the latter, it results in their ability to reproduce. For instance, the fish lay eggs in shallow waters. But when these areas get polluted, it affects their spawning, resulting in less number of fish. Oil spills in the sea are also a great hazard. The recent incident in Chennai affected a lot of marine life with them turning up dead on the shore in large numbers.
The ones that are most affected due to climate change are the coral reefs which house all kinds of marine life and flourish where there is not much physiochemical variation in the temperature. The El Nino effect during which the temperature rises has been responsible for the bleaching of many coral reefs. Naturally, it affects the fishes and all other sea organisms dwelling here. The current year is a severe El Nino year, says a scientist.
Storms and cyclones result in the change in landscape near coastal areas, reshaping sand dunes while causing extensive erosion along the coastline. The cyclone Vardah last year in Tamil Nadu resulted in loss of life as well as property.
Error of Extinction
There are two types of extinction—economic and ecological. In case of the former, the fish becomes so rare that it is economically not viable to catch it anymore. Regarding the latter, the species does not perform the role that it used to, in the ecosystem. For example, sharks have been fished out so much that they are no longer there to play the role of keeping numbers of small fish in check in many places.
with inputs from Saumesh Thimbath, S V Krishna Chaitanya, Harsha and Siba Mohanty