CHENNAI: Protection of marine biodiversity, while a monumental task for any country, is one of the core factors that can combat climate change. While the western countries have started using artificial intelligence and GPS equipped sea birds to monitor marine poaching and curtail dynamite (fish blasting), India, with a sprawling 7,000 km coastline, is a sleeping giant when it comes to protecting its myraid marine resources.
Tamil Nadu has policies in place to protect marine animals like Whale Shark and Dugong, but the reality is that the population of these animals continue to dwindle, as there is no regular census data for such animals, said multiple sources with the State Wildlife and Fisheries Department.
Sea cucumber, sea horse, sea angel, guitarfish, hammerhead shark and stingray are some of the most exploited marine organisms fished out for the international market. Poaching and commercial exploitation of these organisms threaten the marine ecosystem of the Indian Ocean, say marine biologists and experts in fisheries demanding strict enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.
“India is known to be home to about 40-60 species of sharks. In 2013, the Union government announced the ban on shark fining to stop over-exploitation of sharks and stingrays but the endangered marine animal population continues to dwindle due to trawlers and unregulated fishing activities,” a senior wildlife official said.
Possession of shark fins that are not naturally attached to the body of the shark, would amount to ‘hunting’ of a Schedule I species inviting action under the wildlife act. Ten species of sharks have been listed in the Schedule-I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, thereby, giving them the highest degree of protection. But there’s a need to add a few more species of sharks and stingrays, particularly the Guitarfish, the official said.
A 6-year study by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau from 2002 to 2008 revealed that several fish species like Blue Ring Angel, Eight band Butterflyfish and lionfish, which were once rare, are now highly threatened. The current situation of these species is worse, the official explained.
“Alarming levels of fishing particularly sting ray, guitarfish, hammerhead and other sharks continue in the deep ocean. Trawl and dynamite fishing or fish caught by blasting is a serious problem in the Indian ocean,” lamented Teena Jayakumar, scientist, ICAR-National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources,
Kochi. “For instance, guitarfish is rare. It often lives in the bottom region of the seabed. Conservation of this fish is paramount, as it has high medical value.”
Due to the trolling operation, these bottom survivors are threatened, and their habitat protection is crucial for their survival. Demanding new conservation policies from the stakeholders and the government organisations Teena said that there’s a long way to go in terms of marine conservation.
“Poaching, overfishing and habitat exploitation are common grounds for the depleting marine life and the artificial coral reefs have brought relief in some parts of the sea,” explained Prof Manikandavelu, MGR College of Fisheries and Research Institute, Ponneri.
Coral reefs and sea cucumbers play a major role in conservation. As deposit feeders, sea cucumbers’ contribution in nutrient cycling is invaluable. Their actions reduce organic loads and redistribute surface sediment, and the inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus they excrete enhance the benthic habitat. In this way, they make excellent bio-remediators.
Similarly, every marine specie has a role to play and there’s a need to regulate and monitor the dwindling marine resources. “Sea ranching can be a technique where the endangered marine organisms can be raised in captivity and released back into the sea,” Manikandanvelu added.
Guitarfish, an endangered species
Guitarfish are bottom feeders that bury themselves in mud. They play a crucial role in balancing the marine eco system. Guitarfish are ovoviviparous and are not prolific feeders like sardines,” said marine scientist Teena Jayakumar. The embryo matures inside an egg within the mother and their breeding programme is usually long making them vulnerable for local extinction. “The centre has banned finning of sharks and rays benefitting this species but there’s a need for baseline studies to protect rare species like guitar fish. There are a few types of guitar fish and one is already in the critically endangered list and the second type is again rare and has made to IUCN rare list,” she rued.