- While marine mammals are protected under India’s wildlife act, there is no standard protocol yet to deal with marine animal stranding, which are reported across India’s coast regularly.
- Conservationists, authorities and local communities are working together through informal networks at regional levels, but there is a gap in effective data collection and lack of proper training of those on the field to handle strandings.
- Experts recommend a standardised system for dealing with marine life strandings which is said to be in the works at the national level.
On the evening of June 24, 2015, members of the Konkan Cetacean Research Team received an ominous call. A blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the largest animal in the world, was found stranded in the shallow waters of the Arabian Sea, in Revdanda (Alibag) in the state of Maharashtra, along the west coast of India. Just a few months earlier, on March 28, they had spotted two blue whales, a mother and her calf in Malvan, in the Sindhudurg district further south along the same coast.
Officials from the state forest department, the district collector’s office and local people from the village made an effort to push the massive mammal back into the sea. But they were unable to save it. It breathed its last on June 25, the same year. The entire process was carried out without a defined protocol or necessary safety equipment.
In an article for Sanctuary Asia, the research team members described their blue whale mother-calf sighting in March and the conflict they felt seeing this calf washed ashore soon after in June. What they applauded however, was the involvement of local fishermen who refer to the whale as Dev Maasa (Divine Fish) and the forest department in carrying out the work to save the stranded whale.
Every year, a number of marine mammals (whales, dolphins, porpoises and dugongs), marine turtles, marine snakes and certain type of fish, get stranded on beaches all over the world. They may be stranded alive or dead, alone or in groups (known as mass strandings).
Over the last few years, live and dead strandings of lone and groups of marine mammals and turtles, have been reported in India. There were reports of a mass stranding of a dozen dead short-finned pilot whales, washed ashore in Manapad, a small fishing village in Tamil Nadu, in January 2016. A sperm whale was found beached in Odisha, on the eastern coast, in February 2016. Reports of strandings of dead olive ridleys on Chennai’s shoreline have become a somewhat unfortunate event recurring every winter, with mass strandings of the same turtle occurring in Odisha too. A May 2018 report states that Goa’s coast witnesses eight marine species washed ashore every month.
Have marine strandings increased over time?
The phenomena of stranding has been occurring for a long time, but it is media reportage that has improved over time, feel experts. A 2002 research paper by P.L. Kumaran, a marine mammal consultant, revealed a compilation of 1452 records of marine mammals from the year 1800 till 2000, across the Indian coastline. The sources for the study were secondary – it was a compilation of existing, scattered records.
“In order to find out if the number of strandings have increased, we need to have good baseline data to compare with,” said Ketki Jog, an ecologist with the Konkan Cetacean Research Team (KCRT), based in Sindhudurg. “When we started in 2011, there was not much awareness of these animals. We need to know if strandings occurred in this area 50 years ago. Getting records from fishermen is easier and very specific to an area,” she told Mongabay-India.
The database offered on marinemammals.in, a cetacean sighting and stranding database, covers 860 records from 1987 till the present. Dipani Sutaria, an ecologist studying aquatic systems, point outs that the records include sightings, live strandings, dead animals washed ashore, carcasses, skeletons and museum specimens. “So the actual number of ‘stranding’ events covered in the database is probably less than 860,” she said.
“Given the length of the Indian coast line, including the two island systems and the large expansive fisheries that function in both nearshore and offshore waters, the wide range of threats added to their own natural mortality events, the database is for sure not catching every individual that strands from everywhere,” she added.
She also mentioned that one cannot rule out that the frequency of strandings may be increasing due to fisheries, ship strikes, underwater noise, water pollution, red tides, prey loss or habitat loss, or climate-change induced changes in distribution and survival.
Sajan John who heads Marine Projects at Wildlife Trust of India, is convinced that navy activities, increase in vessel traffic, increasing fisheries and not monitoring by-catch contribute to stranding of marine turtles and cetaceans. “Attributing a particular stranding is hard,” he told Mongabay-India. “But these factors play a role in creating chaos, along with all the developmental activities such as offshore drilling.”
Building networks for dealing with marine wildlife stranding
The role of a marine wildlife stranding network is to inform, rescue/rehab, collect biological information and if possible, cause of death.
A basic marine stranding network consists of first responders, forest guard, the divisional forest officer, a government official vet and marine police. A first responder keeps a live individual comfortable and a dead individual from getting washed back into the sea and helps the scientists, veterinarians and the departments in data collection or rescue release operations. Trained vets are important to assess and carry out necropsy.
“The minimum protocol to be followed is safety of public and comfort of the animal stranded if it is alive,” said Sutaria, when asked about the top priority in case of a stranding.
All marine mammals are Schedule 1 species under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, receiving highest protection and the forest department has the mandate to make final decisions on how to deal with the stranded animal.
However, dealing with marine wildlife is not the norm for the officers in charge, explained Sutaria. “They are more involved where we have existing marine mammal research teams. So providing them the required information and training and providing forest guards and district forest officials’ logistical support to handle marine wildlife strandings is important,” she said.
A collaborative project with global groups created the Global Marine Mammal Stranding Training Toolkit, which offers standardised steps for stranding response and investigation. However, stranding response systems vary from country to country and even within a country, between regions, depending on the nature of stranding, the topography of the region, connectivity, logistics etc. India has nine coastal states two coastal union territories and two groups of islands. Local stranding networks work with the forest departments of the respective states to meet the required protocol when an incident occurs.
Ketki Jog of the Konkan Cetacean Research Team explained that they worked in the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra, which with its 120 km coastline gives them a lot of ground to cover. The district has a number of fishing villages. The area is a hotspot for viewing whale sharks and other marine mammals.
“We began our work on cetacean research in February 2012 in Malvan, where a part of our research required us to conduct interviews with the fishing communities. Over time, we built a small network of fisherfolk who would inform us whenever a stranding occurred,” she explained. Their research between 2014 and 2016 was funded by the GOI-UNDP-GEF Sindhudurg Project, before and after which the team members worked independently.
“When you work with small communities like those of the fisherfolk, conducting workshops on a formal scale can be a challenge. We used to go around identifying key individuals who were willing to be a part of the project. Initially, it was just 5-6 respondents and they would give us information when we would call them,” she added.
Over time, along with the forest department, they have created a deeper network of individuals, including members of civil society, researchers, activists, who have formed a marine respondents group on the messaging platform, WhatsApp, where “each individual has their own set of contacts and can reach out to the required people when needed.”
“Data collection is very important for us. So the first responders are taught to take pictures from the right angles, take measurements and take samples,” said Jog. “Veterinary professionals were invited to conduct necropsy workshops for the forest department last October. Things are still at a nascent stage, and the network is not completely effective yet,” she added.
“Sometimes we get to hear of a stranding several days later and it becomes hard to collect relevant data from a decomposed body. The fisherfolk go out in the sea for days and sometimes they take pictures but are unable to send it to us because of poor network, she said, elaborating on some of the logistical issues in getting a response network up and running.”
In Maharashtra, funds have reportedly been set aside for building a marine animal rescue centre to deal with stranded animals, for which KCRT conducted a few workshops with the state mangrove cell and forest department.
One of the biggest hassles with live strandings is crowd control. “We often see crowds around a dead whale; or public taking selfies with a live dolphin that has stranded,” said Sutaria.
“It is also difficult to push back a large live mammal back into the sea, partly because of the shallow continental shelf of the Arabian Sea,” added Jog.
The Islands situation
Mahi Mankeshwar is an independent researcher based in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The region is known for its sightings of the deep diving beaked whales, whose presence has been confirmed only through stranding records from the islands. In 2012, there was a mass stranding of pilot whales in North Andaman. It is clear that stranding is quite common in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but the stranding protocol is not well established, explained Mankeshwar.
“People reporting these strandings are mostly the fisherfolk or the frontline forest staff. The protocol they follow is: the front line staff or fishermen who notice the beached animal contacts the local range office and vet if available. Meanwhile, some photos are taken (or not, depending on inclination of the person; it’s not a part of the official protocol). If the carcass is small enough to be carried, it’s taken to the nearest veterinary center and a necropsy is performed. If it’s a large mammal, sometimes a necropsy is performed on site. For burial, the carcass is generally buried near the place of stranding,” she wrote in an email to Mongabay-India.
The challenges they face are uninformed forest staff or vets not documenting the animal properly, leading to a gap in data collection.
“Last week a beaked whale got stranded on a place called Smith Island in North Andaman. I was on mainland and received some haphazardly taken photos of the animal. Now we could tell that the animal was a beaked whale but because of the way the photos were taken we haven’t been able to tell which one. Even the dentition was not documented which is an important cue for identification, in beaked whales. Unfortunately, we were sent the photos only after the situation had been dealt with so we couldn’t help the process much,” she said.
Odisha, on the east coast, known for its mass nesting of olive ridley turtles, has a number of marine-focused non-profits and a marine resources conservation consortium of the non-profits, fisher unions, biologists and conservationists.
“There have been stranding workshops in Chennai in the past,” said Murali Muralidharan of Dakshin Foundation. “But there is no real formal set up or protocol yet.”
A report published in February 2018 states that the Wildlife Wing of the Odisha state government wants to propose a standard protocol for handling marine strandings in the state.
A possible working model in Goa
Goa, India’s smallest state on the west coast, with a coastline of 105 km, witnesses a number of strandings of humpback dolphins and turtles. Since June 2017, it has established a database of over 115 stranding reports.
Owing to rapidly rising coastal tourism, it has a well-functioning network of nearly 600 lifeguards, employed by Drishti Marine, a private company contracted by the government of Goa. The lifeguards are distributed across Goa’s 44 beaches and patrol the beaches every day.
In April 2016, a Dwarf Sperm Whale was stranded in Palolem beach in South Goa and eventually died. “A tourist informed us and we contacted the forest department, the Konkan Cetacean Research Team, and some other ecologists,” said Puja Mitra, a conservation practitioner who runs Terra Conscious, a social enterprise that conducts ethical dolphin watching tours in Goa.
“But we couldn’t do anything. The crowd was unruly, and we were not prepared enough,” she said.
With this incident as a trigger, she decided to try organising training workshops for the lifeguards. “The lifeguards are the eyes and the ears of the sea. They already have been informing us informally about the standings. They are the ideal first-line responders,” she said in an interview with Mongabay-India.
As a consequence, Terra Conscious, under the aegis of the Mangroves for the Future regional initiative of International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN), collaborated with Goa’s forest department and Drishti Marine to conduct training workshops for nearly 600 lifeguards. It led to the establishment of a Marine Wildlife Stranding Network, Ocean Watch – Goa, a perhaps first-of-its kind private-public partnership, where the state forest department joined hands with a private company to train lifeguards on marine strandings.
The first set of workshops happened in June 2017. The second set happened a year later, in June 2018, with larger participation. At the general lifeguard training centres provided by Drishti Marine, the workshops first familiarised lifeguards with the ocean ecosystem, using videos to depict the current state of our oceans. The anatomy and life cycles of humpback whales and marine turtles were elucidated. With this introduction, the lifeguards were also given instructions on how to deal with a live and a dead stranding of both animals, complete with steps on self-protection (wear gloves at all times), crowd control, right documentation and handling the animal.
“Things are still at a nascent stage and we have a long way to go,” said Mitra. “Our team acts as a coordinator. We ensure that a forest official reaches the site as soon as a lifeguard alerts us, and that proper documentation happens. But we still need to get more efficient, ensure they use safe equipment while handling the animals, etc,” she said.
National guidelines awaited
With multiple examples of managing stranding along India’s coast, does there seem to be a best practice model yet?
Every region has its share of issues, depending on the nature of area covered, the involvement of the officials, the logistics available and the local communities involved. Remote areas have problems of network and accessibility. Areas that do not have active ecology research teams have issues involving the government officials. A Schedule 1 species will always be the responsibility of the forest department, therefore their continuous involvement is important, along with the marine police. Goa seems to have a good working model, but that is also partly because it already has a well-established network of lifeguards in place.
“We ultimately need a standardised system in place,” suggests John from WTI. “WhatsApp is a great platform to alert teams. We need appropriate logistics and equipment units in every region for handling live and dead strandings. Basic things like gloves, stretchers, a hazmat necropsy suit and containment tanks are important.”
Sutaria added, “Training across the spectrum, marine wildlife experts advising national guidelines and local action, a state level repository for samples and data with public ownership and full sharing of data from dead animals for scientific purposes, and a collaborative spirit is important to make the network successful.”
A number of ecologists confirmed that the union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is in the process of preparing a set of national guidelines for a standardised response network.
Banner image: A dead turtle with a swollen neck spotted at Injambakkam, Chennai. Photo by Supriya Vohra.