There have been numerous efforts to conserve terrestrial forests and habitats. However, the same cannot be said for our oceans and seascapes. In recent years, coastal zones have been under increasing pressure due to population growth, unplanned developmental activities, increase in infrastructural growth, coastal lighting, tourism and other related issues often leading to the destruction of coastal habitats and biodiversity. Besides, negligent human and industrial behaviour in coastal areas like the dumping of untreated waste and release of industrial effluents into oceans, chemical runoffs, uncontrolled fishing, increase in bycatch and the general disrespect for creatures of the sea, contributes to the worsening of the marine ecosystems and its biodiversity.
Dead zones, as the name suggests, are void of marine life due to excessive nutrient pollution leading to depletion in nitrogen and oxygen. The marine seascapes of the Bay of Bengal have been increasingly recognised to be at the tipping point in terms of its marine life with over 60,000 sq km (Jayaraman 2016) of the dead zone, the only one identified in India. There are over 400 such identified dead zones around the world’s marine waters. It is difficult to ascribe a single reason for this degradation, further complicated due to the challenges in collating data related to marine diversity and its health that is often expensive, requiring specialised infrastructure and expertise (Jayaraman 2016; Ghosh and Lobo 2017).
Marine conservation till now has been the least explored domain of India’s conservation primarily due to limitations of funds, lack of adequate technical expertise and the paucity of well-equipped ocean-worthy vessels to undertake ecological study and monitoring. Notwithstanding the diversity of marine species, understanding of marine diversity, especially marine mammal diversity, are still in its nascent stages. Further challenges include incorrect species identification, limited geographic coverage and lack of detailed reporting.
Marine Stranding Networks and India
Marine ecologists have looked at marine stranding incidences as opportunities to gain knowledge of marine ecosystems and its species. Marine stranding is a global phenomenon, and as defined by the oldest stranding response network, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service (Southeast Region Marine Mammal Stranding), it is as follows:
“Marine animals are sometimes found dead or alive on shores. They may be sick, injured, trapped, entangled, disoriented, and unable to return to their natural habitat without assistance. Standing can be single or in mass. Mass stranding is when two or more animals strand at the same time duration in close proximity to one another.”
Various stranding networks are operational in several regions of the world. It includes Whale Stranding Indonesia, Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, Australia Marine Mammal Centre, to name a few. In India, the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) maintains records of stranding incidents. Most records are based on media reports or are based on anecdotal and secondary information. The Marine Mammal Conservation Network of India is another database on stranding incidents and sightings. It is essential to recognise that the datasets in these two Indian networks are erratic and anecdotal reportingThis gap can be addressed by the creation and support of structured networks of first-responders who can continuously monitor the coastline.
Ocean Watch Goa
One such structured network has been founded in Goa. The Goa Forest Department has taken the lead in partnership with International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) India, Drishti Lifesaving Pvt. Ltd. and Terra Conscious. The network, Ocean Watch Goa, established in 2017, is a first of its kind initiative to cover, respond and document marine stranding along the Goa coast (Mitraet al. 2018).
The lifeguards and beach cleaning staff employed by Drishti Lifesaving Pvt. Ltd. provides efficient and continuous monitoring of the entire coastline of Goa. Terra Conscious, marine conservation based social enterprise, promoting responsible marine tourism in Goa, helps in mediation and timely response to strandingsalong with Goa Forest Department’s prompt actions. The datasets maintained by IUCN and Terra Conscious have documented over 242 stranding incidents in 22 months that included 71 per cent marine turtles (3 species) and 29 per cent cetaceans (6 species). It is by far the most extensive reporting of marine stranding in any coastal state in India and provides continuous, detailed information on diversity and threats to our marine wildlife.
Ocean Watch Goa is a breakthrough in marine conservation as in its two years of functioning it has captured first-hand data of every stranding incident along the 102 km stretch of Goa’s coastline and documented it scientifically. The network has proved that inclusivity of stakeholders, in-depth research and proper documentation can lead to invaluable information that allows us to reshape policy decisions and outcomes. The Marine Stranding Network of Goa can evolve into science that maximises the safety of animals and the potential of understanding the ecology of stranding.
The public-private partnership is a relatively new concept in India for addressing conservation-related challenges. However, public-private partnership and citizen science have been globally recognised for their contribution of reliable information that supports in developing new and improved conservation management strategies and tools. In India, Ocean Watch Goa is an encouraging example of such a partnership for effective and efficient conservation which has successfully been able to align the motivations and interests of all the stakeholders to meet its desired objectives.
While around the world, stranding networks and its databases are being used to understand various aspects of the marine ecosystem and its health; in India, it is still in nascent stages. Indians have little knowledge about the diversity of marine animals in India with over 26 species of marine mammals reported from our coastline (Kumaran 2002).
Effective marine conservation can only be achieved by stakeholders joining hands. There is an urgent need to pool resources (financial and human) and work inclusively to ensure the sustainability of the network. While governments have the crucial role of protecting wildlife and biodiversity through legislations, laws and allocation of funds to implement schemes, they do not have all the resources to win the conservation battle alone. NGOs provide the last mile outreach and enthusiasm, while the private sector can ensure support not only financially but also through the active involvement of their personnel.
Learnings and recommendations from Ocean Watch Goa include the following:
Need for precise detailing of roles and responsibilities among stakeholders who are part of the marine stranding network and its institutionalisation is a requirement.
Need for financial resources from government and private sector to improve specialised infrastructure to house and maintain live stranded/injured marine animals.
Need for extensive research in order to understand regional diversity, community behaviours and perceptions related to marine ecology in more coastal regions for upscaling of the network.
Need to understand that stranding is an opportunity to gain valuable scientific information. The capacity of all stakeholders in dealing with marine stranding, therefore needs to be enhanced to assist in better management and conservation decisions.
Such initiatives can include local communities, local government, and business communities to collectively and responsibility work towards addressing marine conservation and the challenges we face are attractive models and drivers of change. This new wave of addressing marine conservation in India needs to be valued and upscaled. It is also coincidental that the draft guidelines for addressing marine stranding in Indian coasts by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) also has a scope to include other stakeholders.
Ghosh A. and A. S. Lobo. 2017. Bay of Bengal: Depleted Fish Stocks and Huge Dead Zone Signal Tipping Point, The Guardian, January 31. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/31/bay-bengal-depleted-fish-stocks-pollution-climate-change-migration
Jayaraman K.S. 2016. Dead Zone Found In Bay Of Bengal, Nature India, December 12. Available at: https://www.natureasia.com/en/nindia/article/10.1038/nindia.2016.163
Kumaran P. 2002. Marine Mammal Research in India–A Review and Critique of the Methods, Current Science, 83(10):1210-1220. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267956489_Marine_mammal_research_in_India_-_A_review_and_critique_of_the_methods
Mitra, P. Talwar, M., Calais, J., Rodrigues, M., Srinivasan, K., DSouza, N. and Ishwar N. M. 2018. Enabling a Collaborative Marine Wildlife Stranding Network, Ocean Watch – Goa, One Year Report (June 2017- June 2018). IUCN India Country Office, New Delhi. viii + 25 pp. Available at: https://www.iucn.org/sites/dev/files/content/documents/2018/ocean_watch_-_goa_one_year_report_2017-2018.pdf