By Isha B.
We’ve all heard about the Olive Ridley annual migrations, where huge numbers make the long journey from Sri Lankan waters to their destination of one of the three major breeding grounds in India- Gahirmatha, Rushikulya or Devi- all located in Orissa, where the process of mating and laying eggs is then initiated. A female mates with several males and is capable of laying anywhere between 100-180 eggs. The eggs hatch within 45-60 days of being laid, and give rise to a unique phenomenon wherein thousands of newly hatched turtles scramble for the sea, guided by their sensitivity to the glow over the ocean. It is estimated that only one in a thousand of these turtles lives beyond its first year.
Today, most of us are familiar with this species because of widespread media coverage of the mass deaths that take place every year. Over 100,000 Olive Ridley turtles were killed between 1993 and 2003, a grievous number considering that rough estimates place the number of Ridleys wordwide at 800,000. Shekhar Dattatri’s documentary The Ridleys’ Last Stand documents some of the leading causes of death and endangerment of the Olive Ridley in India- trawler boats that use gill nets and fishing nets, as well as destruction of Ridley nesting grounds- and takes a look at all the stakeholders involved in the issue, possible solutions, and why they are not being implemented.
This piece seeks to analyse the documentary. However, before this, I would like to touch upon the wider picture briefly. Olive Ridleys are now recognized as a threatened or endangered species (depending on the geographic location) all over the world. While the largest concentrations are located in India, Mexico and Costa Rica are two other countries with significant Ridley population density, and all three countries have their own reasons and problems as to why Olive Ridley numbers are dwindling. The major causes include suffocation or dismemberment from gill nets, shrimp nets, long-lines or boat anchors; destruction of nesting habitats; ocean pollution; wide scale harvesting of turtle eggs and large scale poaching for meat, shell or leather.
The documentary is specific on two fronts: it looks only at the breeding grounds in Orissa and it looks chiefly at the problem of trawling boats and that of nesting ground habitat destruction. There are several secondary issues regarding the Ridleys, such as the lack of reasonable estimates as to the number of existing Olive Ridleys in the world compared to the definite estimates of those dying every year, the possibility of the Ridley as a social construct that might be diverting attention from (or to) other species that similarly need immediate attention, and a capitalist perspective on the problem that questions whether Olive Ridleys need to be saved, why that is so, and the need for the stakeholders who are in power to believe it over everyone else.
The Olive Ridley in India is victim to mass killings every year on a huge scale. 100,000 turtles were reported to have been killed between 1993 and 2003, as mentioned before, a staggering figure considering that the worldwide Olive Ridley population was estimated to be around and above 800,000 in 2008. According to the documentary, the main causes for these deaths are the shrimp and gill nets used by trawlers (and the fact that trawl boats encroach on protected, restricted land with maximum Ridley density) and nesting habitat destruction.
There are several organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, that are working to solve the problem. The legislature in place is fairly watertight. However, it is barely enforced, partly due to lack of resources and partly due to governmental negligence. There are four main stakeholders involved. The traditional fishermen form the only group that doesn’t, directly or indirectly, threaten the Ridley, but it is also the one with the least influence. The trawlers have a direct hand in the death of the turtles, but although they are interested in using the TEDs, the decision is out of their hands. The trawler owners are seen as the real culprits, since they refuse to consider the life of a turtle to be as or more important than a 5% loss in their catch. Meanwhile, the government is implicated courtesy its negligence.
Public activism is one major factor that could cause a turnaround, but unfortunately, the general public is not showing any despair or interest towards the issue and there have been no widespread protests or demands from the common man to save the Ridley. There is a definite need for the public to be mobilized towards the issue- it could be the catalyst that brings about the desired change.
It is also worth pointing out that in this whole debate, we have, as usual, side-lined the entity that is most affected- the Olive Ridley turtle- in a manner typical of social constructivist debate. All the stakeholders involved are working towards or against the turtle not because of the turtle itself, but because of how they are affected by it. In the end, everyone acts for personal, selfish gain. Social and economic inequalities between the different groups implicated in the issue also hamper efforts to come to an understanding through cooperation.
A broader picture
An important consideration is that population statistics for Ridleys are fuzzy at best. Wikipedia states that there are 800,000 odd Ridleys extant, according to a survey carried out in 2008. If this is true, then just the turtles that were killed between 1993 and 2003 represent an eighth of the current population, a devastatingly huge number by any account. And these are just the turtles that were killed within the Indian peninsula. Turtles in places like Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua face their own, additional problems, such as egg harvesting and poaching for leather. However, some groups, including certain political systems, argue that due to the already extant large numbers of turtles on the specified beaches, the death of a few thousand should not be a cause for alarm.
Why should the Ridley be saved?
This is an essential question, and one can make capitalist, anthropocentric, ethical as well as eco-centric arguments in response to it.
From a capitalist point of view (the trawler owners), the only focus is on maximizing profit from the seas. Turtles dying as a bycatch of fishing is seen merely an externality, one that does not seem to warrant any immediate consequences, so even the little cost in terms of lost catch incurred by fixing TEDs to trawlers is seen as avoidable, since trawlers and trawler owners struggle to make ends meet as it is. Here trawlers are seen as expendable and the capital of production- the trawl boats- a product of global capitalism. A precautionary approach to the issue from this perspective is entirely absent.
We can draw parallels between the ‘race to harvest’ between the US and Latin American countries, and fishing conflicts between India and Sri Lanka. The universalizing role of capital and technology has increasingly wiped out ecological and social spaces, creating singular entities in place of pluralistic communities capable of cooperating and coexisting, and more importantly, sharing benefits and resources. This has led to the emergence of conflicting indigenous communities. In this scenario, the trawl boat owners are the outsiders who see no obligation to follow customary community laws, and instead, follow capitalist principles. While this is a model based on extensive exploitation and profit, it has deep underlying tensions, leading to a crisis mirroring the second contradiction of capitalism. This calls for more sustainable approaches to the issue.
Since the Ridley is not a commodity in demand but an externality, albeit an enormous one, we cannot apply theories of market response or a Marxist contradiction crisis, which could lead to potential solutions for saving the turtles that would be utilitarian at the same time, such as turtle ranches or a turtle market with poaching permits, and so on.
The ethical perspective is quite obvious- it looks at the unnecessary, unwarranted suffering of the Olive Ridley and seeks to eliminate it on the grounds of moral extentionism for all living organisms. No living creature deserves to die strangled within a net, particularly a death that can be easily avoided. Everyone who watches the documentary and is struck by the horrifying, heartrending scenes of dead turtles decorating a shoreline, will empathize with this view. We can also consider this as a social construct and ask why the same ethical arguments do not apply to the fish caught by traditional fishermen and trawlers alike.
Last, we have the eco-centric perspective, where the need to save the Ridley stems from both its value as a unique species and its ecological significance. Since the deaths of thousands of these turtles will have some (adverse) effect on their immediate environments, most importantly by throwing the oceanic food chain off balance, they must be preserved to save the immediate environment from crisis. The degradation of the ecosystem caused by this can only be offset by following sustainable solutions, even as with market based perspectives, one must ask whether functioning of whole ecosystems can be assured in markets that capture the value of only discrete goods and services.
Hence, we see both connections and conflicts between conceptions of environmental perspectives, animal ethics, ecological ethics, anthropocentric conceptions of the issue and the capitalist model.
The tragedy of the commons
The Olive Ridley discourse reflects the tragedy of the commons quite closely. The three concentrations around Orissa form a wildlife commons specific to the Olive Ridley. Since boundaries are practically impossible to construct over the sea, it is difficult to segregate areas for different groups to fish and to designate protected areas, especially in the wake of minimal enforcement.
A meaningfully way to solve a commons issue involves excluding certain groups, drawing boundaries clearly and implementing these through the stakeholders themselves. The legislature in place already takes care of the first two requirements, with enforcement being the only problem. This could be effectively managed by involving the fishermen themselves to patrol the waters. Operation Kacchapa is already carrying this out on a minor scale by hiring trawlers to keep trawl-fishermen in check. This, in a way, also compensates for the losses suffered by the trawlers in not fishing in the restricted areas.
However, social and economic inequalities, such as those which exist between the marginalized traditional fishermen, the illegal trawlers and the trawler owners, act as barriers to institutional formation for ecological management, making cooperation difficult. This is one more aspect that must be worked out for an efficient management of the problem.
What about the fish?
In focusing on the Olive Ridley, we have understandably skirted around the fish themselves. This could make for a discourse by itself- reserves of fish, distribution of fish species and whether any are endangered, the kind of profits made out of them (not much, according to the documentary), possibilities for alternative fishing spaces, etc. Most importantly, there is also the question of making fishing more efficient- through upgraded technology that does not involve the kind of netting that contains the risk of bycatch, perhaps? There is a lot of space for innovation in a political economy, especially one that is ecological in nature.
An improved situation?
Earlier this year, the Orissa coast witnessed a record number of turtles coming ashore to lay eggs. In February 2013, over 300,000 turtles visited the coast to lay eggs. This was just the Rushikulya coast, and these were the figures before nesting had begun in Devi and Gahirmatha. This figure is equivalent to, if the survey cited in Wikipedia is to be believed, over a third of the total Ridley population in the world. In light of this huge debate about saving the Olive Ridley, these statistics show that Olive Ridley numbers have picked up, not gone down drastically, in recent years. Or perhaps other clusters of Ridleys, not just Sri Lankan Ridleys, are migrating to Orissa coasts, negating the possibility of Ridley populations actually having gone up.
There could be other alternative explanations, since there is barely any significant body of research, including conclusive statistical evidence or migratory theories about the Olive Ridley, an impediment when it comes to finding empirical solutions to pressing problems. This needs to be developed to take an objective, comprehensive look at the Olive Ridley in these contexts. There is only so far you can get extrapolating with limited data.
In conclusion, the bottom line of this discourse must be that the Ridley needs immediate attention, and although the numbers of breeding Ridleys have increased this past year, we must continue current efforts and find new methods and effective solutions based on cooperation and pluralistic conceptions of the problem, to ensure that no more Ridleys die needlessly.