Taking the lead in saving manatees fighting for survival

In September, the State government declared 448 square kilometers as a sanctuary for these world’s largest herbivorous marine mammals, which thrive mainly on seagrass beds. According to estimates, there are only 240 of these animals left in the country and most of them are in Palk Bay near Thanjavur and Pudukkottai districts.

In September, the State government declared 448 square kilometers as a sanctuary for these world’s largest herbivorous marine mammals, which thrive mainly on seagrass beds. According to estimates, there are only 240 of these animals left in the country and most of them are in Palk Bay near Thanjavur and Pudukkottai districts.

While cows roam all over the country, sea cows (dugong) struggle to survive. Now, Tamil Nadu has taken the lead in saving them by establishing the country’s first Dugong Sanctuary at Palk Bay.

It is estimated that there are only 240 dugongs left in the entire country and most of them are in Palk Bay, especially along the coast of Thanjavur and Pudukkottai districts. In September, the State Government declared the 448 square kilometer area as a sanctuary for dugongs, the world’s largest herbivorous marine mammals, which thrive mainly on seagrass beds.

Although they are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, their population is declining due to habitat loss. “They are also shy animals, difficult to detect,” said Thanjavur District Forest Officer Akhil Thampi.

He notes that a sanctuary is different from a wildlife sanctuary. There are no restrictions for local communities in the territory of the reserve. It works by involving local communities in conservation, he explains.

Stakeholders

Ever since the proposal was announced in the Assembly last year, Environment and Forests Secretary Supriya Sahu has maintained that fishermen are stakeholders in the sanctuary and that conservation would not be possible without the participation of coastal communities.

For a year, the Forest Department led by the Collectors and other government agencies have been conducting extensive educational work with fishermen and giving advice. At these meetings, fishermen themselves admitted that dugong sightings have declined over the past few decades. In the distant past, they were hunted for meat, but fishermen are now more aware and poaching has not been reported recently. In fact, fishermen are now rescuing dugongs and releasing them back into the sea. They are rewarded for their good deeds, says Mr Thampi.

Breeding site

Seagrass beds in these coastal waters are critical to the survival of dugongs. Although dugongs are found in the Gulf of Kutch and the waters around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a large number of them are in the Palk Gulf. Forest Department officials say that occasionally they cross over to the neighboring bay of Mannar Marine National Park.

According to estimates, an adult dugong can eat 70 kilograms of seaweed per day. Therefore, mammals need habitat or abundant seagrass beds in the sanctuary to survive in Palk Bay.

Seagrass beds grow naturally on the shores of Palk Bay and serve as breeding grounds for fish, molluscs, mammals and many other invertebrate species. In addition to dugongs, the seagrass beds are home to seahorses, sea cucumbers and pipefish, officials say.

The Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute (SDMRI) surveyed the 130 km stretch between Pamban and Adirampattinam on the coast of Palk Bay a decade ago and found it to have a wealth of seagrass beds.

After a thorough underwater survey, the Thoothukudi-based institute found that the coastline has 254 square kilometers of seagrass and 14 species of seagrass found all over the world.

Noting that about 50 coastal villages on the coast depend on seagrass fisheries for their livelihoods, the institute warned that more than 20% of seagrass beds are degraded. The use of bottom trawls, shore tires and push nets by fishermen was cited as the main reason. Land-based threats include sewage disposal and the cultivation of exotic algae in seagrass beds.

“There are both human and natural factors contributing to the degradation of seagrass beds,” says Mr Thampi. This prompted the Forest Department to engage in large-scale seagrass planting from 2017, involving local communities. The training continued in 2018. The beds grew almost four times the size they were planted. But later, because there was no scheme, some of the beds were destroyed by trawlers.

Now that the reserve has been declared, the Forest Department is getting funding for seagrass restoration, a project developed by conservation NGOs like the Omcar Foundation and local fishermen.

A hundred plus

At the time, the SDMRI conducted a survey of fishermen and put the dugong population at 100, the highest in Indian waters. A 2019 survey by the Wildlife Institute of India also had 100 animals.

“Currently, the number could be higher as more mother-calf pairs are being reported. This indicates the presence of a breeding ground,” says Mr Thampi.

Officials of the Department of Fisheries report that the number of bottom trawlers in the coastal regions has decreased drastically in the last four years. Moreover, the shallow coast where seagrass beds exist is used only by traditional fishermen who use nets that do not damage the seagrass bed. “Fishermen know very well that their livelihood depends on the abundance of sea grass and therefore there is no real threat to dugongs,” says a senior official of the Fisheries Department in Pudukkottai.

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