India’s 1st dugong conservation reserve to be in Tamil Nadu

Marine biologists and conservationists have long demanded a reserve as the population of Dugongs, as known as sea cows, in Indian waters has been dropping to dangerous levels.

Published: 04th September 2021 08:58 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th September 2021 10:44 AM   |  A+A-

A diver swimming with a dugong in the Palk Bay | Express

Express News Service

CHENNAI:  The State government in Assembly on Friday declared 500 sq.km of the biodiversity-rich waters in the Palk Bay, on the southeast coast of Tamil Nadu, as India’s first dugong conservation reserve. The reserve will span the northern part of the Palk Bay from Adiramapattinam to Amapattinam.

Marine biologists and conservationists have long demanded a reserve as the population of dugongs, as known as sea cows, in Indian waters has been dropping to dangerous levels. According to Wildlife Institute of India (WII) estimates, only 200-250 Dugongs are left in the wild, of which 150 are found in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu, among the last surviving natural habitats for dugongs in the world. 

According to Environment Secretary Supriya Sahu, 500 sq.km is only an indicative number. “We will conduct a detailed study and a stakeholder meeting after which the actual size of the conservation reserve will be notified,” she said.

Explaining the importance of conserving dugongs, Sahu said they play a play a crucial role in maintaining healthy fish stock. “Dugong is the only herbivorous marine mammal on earth that feeds exclusively on seagrass. It consumes 40kg of seagrass daily and helps in the growth of fresh vegetation. In the absence of dugongs, seagrass will grow densely and fish will not come to lay eggs,” she said. In India, dugongs are found in Palk Bay, Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu, Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat and Andaman and Nicobar islands. Dugongs generally inhabit shallow waters. 

Palk Bay reserve to protect Dugongs by ending trawl fishing

AS part of the CAMPA-Dugong Recovery Project, various surveys were conducted in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, from November 2016 to March 2019. A dugong with its calf was sighted in the proposed reserve on December 29, 2018, the first sighting of dugongs in the wild in Tamil Nadu. Six dugongs were rescued and released back into the sea, while 11 dugongs died in the region during the project. It is suspected these Dugongs died due to fisheriesrelated activities.

“It is believed the area is being used as breeding grounds by dugongs and therefore it was identified as a ‘critical habitat of the dugong’. About 82 per cent of the proposed conservation reserve is covered with seagrass with 48 per cent having intensive seagrass cover,” said K Sivakumar, Head of Department of Endangered Species Management, Wildlife Institute of India.

Studies have revealed that the proposed conservation reserve supports several globally important species such as the highly-threatened whale shark, sea horses, green and hawksbill sea turtles, dolphins and sacred chanks. Despite its ecological and economic significance, this critical dugong habitat is under threat largely due to unsustainable fishing practices. Chief Wildlife Warden Shekar Kumar Niraj said, once the conservation reserve is notified, trawl fishing will not be allowed inside the area.

There will be a speed limit for boat movements to minimise boat strikes. In 2016, Forest Department with the assistance of Suganthi Devadason of the Marine Research Institute (SDMRI) prepared a species conservation action plan to assess the Dugong habitat (seagrass beds) in Palk Bay between Pamban in Ramanathapuram to Athiramapattinam.

The study revealed there was a seagrass cover of over 209.9 km. A similar study in 2011 found a seagrass cover of 254 sq.km. Edward Patterson, director of SDMRI, said trawling remains the biggest challenge. “Loss of 45 sq.km of seagrass cover in five years is worrisome.”

Whale sharks, sea horses
Studies have revealed that the proposed conservation reserve supports several globally important species such as the highly-threatened whale shark, sea horses, green and hawksbill sea turtles, dolphins and sacred chanks.



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