Conservation Conversations

VARDHAN PATANKAR – OVERFISHING CAUSING DECLINES IN INDIAN MARINE WILDLIFE POPULATION

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Green Minute News:

Vardhan Patankar is a marine biologist pursuing coral reef related research and conservation work with a critical eye. His current research focuses on understanding on-going shifts on reef ecosystems caused due to impact of humans and climate change on reef resilience. He is particularly fascinated by marine life that exists within coral reefs but also observes life outside the reefs with just as much wonder and amazement.  

Q1. How diverse are our seas and oceans? Can you please elaborate?

With a coastline of 7,500 km, an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 2.02 million square km, continental shelf of 4,68,000 square km spread across 10 maritime states and five union territories, India is one of the important marine biodiversity regions of the world.

There are four major marine ecosystems in India :

Coral reefs

Seagrass

Mangroves

Deep-Sea

Each of these has a unique habitat. Besides there are estuaries, salt marshes, mudflats, sandy and rocky shores that support unique biodiversity.

Of the 32 animal phyla that are known to science, 15 are represented in the marine ecosystems of India.

The vast coastline and open sea habitats form an important breeding, nursery, aggregation and feeding grounds for invertebrates, fish, and marine megafauna.

Q 2. What about studies on Indian marine life?

India’s marine biodiversity has not been adequately studied to form good management practices. The available knowledge is currently restricted to the fishing communities and scientists. As per the current estimates, a total number of marine species in Indian region is unknown, but the estimated range is between 10,000 to 15,000.

The main marine biodiversity features of India are:

33 species of marine mammals, 

over 450 species of corals,

approximately 160 species of sharks and rays,

over 2,000 and almost 60% of world’s coral reef fish species,

five species of turtles,

140 species of sea cucumbers,

over 3000 species of molluscs (bivalve, oysters, clams, mussels)

approximately 400 species of coral,

38 species of mangroves

and 14 species of seagrasses. 

Q 3. What are the conservation measures undertaken to preserve our marine wildlife? 

India is protecting its marine wildlife through the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) or by protecting species under various schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The WLPA is the fundamental legislation required for the establishment of Protected Areas (PAs). According to the provisions of the Act, PAs are divided into 4 categories- national parks, sanctuaries, conservation reserves, community reserves with Marine PAs falling under any one of the four categories.

Altogether, there are 25 MCPAs in Peninsular India, and an additional 109 MPAs on the islands. While these regulations are in place, there is lack of implementation of the law and basic knowledge and awareness about marine ecosystems amongst stakeholders. For any conservation effort to succeed, it is important to arm every citizen — be it a student or enthusiast, scientist or hobbyist, local resident or visitor — with knowledge of the region’s biodiversity. This, in turn, can spur citizens to closely explore natural spaces, document what they see, and help bring information about the local biodiversity and its conservation into the public domain.

Q 4. What has been the contribution of wildlife NGOs in this regard?

Currently, many organisations are working with local communities and helping them in managing their resources as well as exploring options of community-based conservation models. There are also NGOs that are working to reduce fishing pressure by creating new opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, especially for women and youth. These include value-addition to fisheries operations, production activities such as small-scale farming of mangrove crabs and oysters and a range of activities linked to responsible utilisation of resources to responsible food consumption.

Capacity building programs, better management of existing Marine Protected Areas, coupled with training in biodiversity monitoring techniques, adequate funding from the Central Government and long-term monitoring of marine systems, is the need of the hour. Addressing other problems which are indirectly linked to improving the health of the marine systems e.g., poverty, poor governance, a lack of political will or insufficient engagement of local communities are necessary. On-ground execution at multiple scales of radical management at international and regional levels are a few ways of protecting marine biodiversity.

Q5. What are the biggest threats to marine life in India? Elaborate on some major threats with examples? 

The biggest threats to marine life in India are:

Rapid habitat degradation,

Unplanned development,

Plastic dumping in the ocean,

Overfishing,

Extraction of marine resources,

Sediment run off into reef areas,

Pollution in the ocean,

Oil spills,

Large scale acoustic impacts,

Destruction of mangroves and seagrass beds and

Climate change induced natural catastrophes

While these are broad threats that are observed by many, there is limited documentation in terms of changes caused to marine systems and their cascading effects on ecosystems and dependent wildlife as well as humans.

As per latest statistics, approximately 560 million people live along the Indian coastline and island territories. These people are primary users of the coast and its resources. Over the years, we have extracted way much out of the sea, and we are also throwing way too much into the sea not really respecting there are limits to what we can extract and put into the ocean.

India is home to 10 percent of the world’s total biodiversity of fish but it also happens to be the world’s second largest producer of fish, which can give an idea of what is getting extracted. While catching fish is not inherently bad, the issue is that modern fishing vessels catch fish faster than stocks can replenish, which is called ‘overfishing’ and this causes declines in marine wildlife populations. 

(IN CONVERSATION WITH R S TEJUS)