With Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik repeatedly underscoring the need for the conservation of Odisha’s biodiversity, state forest officials have stepped up their drive against illegal fishing in the Gahirmatha marine sanctuary to protect the rare Olive Ridley turtles. They recently arrested seven fishermen for violating the fishing ban in the sanctuary that was set up with the exclusive purpose of conserving the endangered Olive Ridleys that traverse thousands of miles in the sea to reach the Odisha coast during the winter for mating and nesting on its beaches.
The officials also seized a trawler and two quintals of fish from the accused, who were booked under the provisions of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The incident has also brought into focus the vexed issue of conflict between livelihood and wildlife conservation. Such arrests in Gahirmatha, the only marine sanctuary of the state, are nothing new. Every year local fishermen violate the fishing ban within 20 kms of the sanctuary area from the coastline, as the restrictions adversely impact their livelihood.
Spread over 1,435 sq km in the sea from Hukitola to Dhamra, the sanctuary has also seen incidents of firing by forest patrols on rogue fishing vessels. For the government, conservation of Olive Ridley turtles is important because they are not only the flagship marine species of the state but also a major tourist attraction. The Gahirmatha beach in Kendrapara district is their largest rookery in the world.
The need for their conservation was felt because mechanized fishing vessels, especially big fishing trawlers, started taking a huge toll on these marine creatures. Carcasses of hundreds of turtles, killed by the gillnets and propellers of fishing vessels, were found strewn along the coast every year.
Hence, the government, apart from creating a special marine sanctuary for these turtles, also decided to impose a ban on fishing within a 20 km stretch from the mouths of Dhamara, Devi and Rushikulya rivers during the breeding season of Olive Ridleys under the provisions of Odisha Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1982 and Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The ban remains in force from November 1 to May 31.
While this has helped bring down Olive Ridley turtle casualties, it has severely affected the livelihood of small fishermen who practically remain idle during the period. Some violate the fishing restrictions and get caught in the process. The argument of the small fisherfolk, who operate in small mechanized fishing vessels, is that the ban should be rationalized by excluding them from its ambit as their vessels, unlike big fishing trawlers, can hardly cause any harm to the turtles. They are also unhappy with the ‘meagre’ compensation being offered by the government to offset their losses during the turtle season.
This is a tricky situation. On the one hand, the government must do everything within its powers to save the endangered Olive Ridley turtles; and on the other, it also has to keep in mind the livelihood needs of the state’s fishing community. It is extremely important to strike a balance on the matter, and no one could do this better than the five-time Chief Minister, who remains as committed to the conservation of state’s biodiversity as to taking care of the livelihood of its people, especially the poor people.