The future of India's marine life

Feature story - 21 July, 2006
In our line of work, we find livelihood and ecology inextricably linked. The Defending Our Oceans expedition is documenting over and over, how the loss of ecological resources (by overfishing for example) means both the environment and the people relying on it for a living suffer. And, conversely, we are seeing how conservation can mean more secure long-term employment. Along these lines, our report, 'India's Coastal and Marine Environment', presents a compelling argument for marine reserves along India's coast.

An Olive Ridley turtle up close and personal. Every year, thousands of Olive Ridley turtles congregate in these waters to mate and then nest in a perfectly synchronised arribada.

The Indian peninsula, bordered by the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and theBay of Bengal, boasts of a variety of diverse marine ecosystems. Densemangrove forests in the Sunderbans, the world's largest congregationsof nesting sea turtles in Orissa, delicate seagrass beds in Palk Bay,the enigmatic dugong in the Gulf of Mannar, majestic whale sharks inthe Gulf of Kutch and some of the world's most beautiful coral reefs inthe Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar islands; these are just a fewof the rare treasures to be found along India's 8,000 km longcoastline.

Magnificence, munificence

The beauty of the Indian marine ecosystems is matched by theirgenerosity. The ecological wealth of the oceans provides a livelihoodto millions of people. Even at a conservative estimate, at least 4million people in over 4,000 fishing villages along the Indiancoastline live directly off the seas. Thousands of others are involvedin one way or another - selling the catch, supplying fishing gear, etc.

The vast majority of those in the India fishing industry aresmall-scale and artisanal fishermen - living simply, fishing modestquantities and trading on a small-scale. However, the growingmechanised and trawl sector is fast making life unliveable for thesecommunities, as more and more trawlers destroy ocean habitats in searchof fewer fish.

Wealth within measure

So well established is our belief that the oceans are an infiniteresource, that they have become a metaphor for unlimited, boundlessplenty - and this is as true in India as the rest of the world. Thereality, however, is that we're using up the resources of the oceansfaster than they can be regenerated. Globally, stocks of most majorcommercial species are showing signs of overexploitation. Although inIndia they have not over-exploited the ocean to levels as critical asin many Western countries, there is a need to act now, before reachinga state of crisis.

More and better marinereserves - areas that are closed to allextractive uses, such as fishing and mining, as well as disposalactivities - are the best, strongest tool, to ensure marine habitat andrecourses are protected for future generations.  In addition toprotecting vital marine habitat, and giving the life there a safehaven, marine reserves also benefit fisheries in surrounding areas, asfish catches increase. For instance, a network of marine reserves inSt. Lucia in the Caribbean led to fish catches in surrounding areasincreasing by 46-90 percent within five years.

Small and effective

But in India the answer does not lie in building up large, isolatedreserves.  Most Indian fisherman ply their trade in coastalwaters, and most of the vital marine habitat near India is also nearthe coast.  There is a temptation to set aside a few large marinereserves, as the easiest solution.  However, this would mean onlya small number of fishing communities, on either end of the reserve,would benefit from them - while communities in between might lose outas traditional fisheries areas are placed off limits as part of thereserve.

A better solution lies in creating a network of small coastal reserves,drawn up in consultation with local communities.  In this way,more local fishing communities would benefit from the reserves and sohave a stake in creating and protecting them.

Download the report summary

Download the executive summary of the "Indian Coastal Marine Environment" report

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