- Goa has a dedicated marine wildlife stranding response network that, apart from following a standard protocol for responding to a live or dead stranding, records data of all strandings.
- Experts say longer data collection period is needed to identify cause of more strandings over a specific period. Timely necropsies need to determine cause of death in dead strandings.
- While informal networks function to some degree of success, a national protocol on stranding networks is needed and reported to be in the works.
On July 2 this year, two olive ridley turtles were found entangled in fishing nets at Cavelossim, a village in south Goa. “I was there on duty at the time,” recalled Shankar Parekar, a lifeguard. “I called more guards for help and using a pair of scissors and a knife, we cut the nets. Once the forest department’s permission came through, we released the turtles back in the water,” he said.
In September this year, according to a news report, a sperm whale calf was found washed ashore on Bimbvel beach, in central Goa, near the airport. It was not known whether the whale, a deep-water species, washed up ashore dead or surfaced due to injuries and died. The forest department, with the help of the Navy (the beach is under Naval jurisdiction) and the local panchayat, buried the carcass.
India’s coastal waters have an abundance of marine wildlife. There are at least 30 species of marine mammals and five species of marine turtles swimming in the seas, apart from marine snakes and other wildlife. Every year, several marine mammals (whales, dolphins, porpoises and dugongs), marine turtles and marine snakes get stranded on beaches all over the world, including India. They may be stranded alive or dead, alone or in groups (known as mass strandings).
The marine wildlife stranding network response system in India is distributed across the country’s nine coastal states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal), two coastal union territories (Daman and Diu and Puducherry) and two island territories (Andaman & Nicobar Islands (Bay of Bengal) and Lakshadweep Islands (Arabian Sea).
The role of a marine wildlife stranding network is to inform, rescue/rehabilitate, collect biological information and if possible, determine 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.
Goa, the smallest state on India’s west coast, has a dedicated marine wildlife stranding response network. Currently, it is the only working public-private partnership model in the country. The network is a collaboration between Goa’s forest department, Drishti Marine, a private company contracted by the government of Goa for deploying lifeguards, Terra Conscious, a social impact-sensitive travel enterprise based in Goa, and Mangroves for the Future, a regional initiative of the International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN).
Read more: Managing marine life strandings while national protocol is awaited
Apart from following a standard protocol for responding to a live or dead stranding, the network is also responsible for recording data of all the strandings. With rigorous and detailed data collection and records, scientists can study patterns of different behaviour of animals over time. It could help in understanding the health of marine ecosystems.
Mongabay-India attempts to explore the data collected in Goa over two years, identify gaps and gather expert views on the way forward.
The data story
Goa’s 160-kilometre coastline is dotted with 44 beaches. It has several separate undisturbed linear stretches of beach, the longest one being a 28-kilometre stretch between Velsao and Mobor in the southern part of the state. There are 11 beaches between Velsao and Mobor. Betalbatim and Majorda lie next to each other in a linear stretch.
Between June 2017 and 2019, a total of 186 turtle and 80 cetacean strandings were recorded along the Goan coastline. “About 80% were dead and the rest alive,” said Shashikant Jadhav, operations manager for lifeguards at Drishti Marine.
The records, spanning two years, show that of the total 266 individual strandings, there were 136 dead and 50 live turtle strandings, and 79 dead and one live cetacean stranding.
The one live cetacean stranding was of a female striped dolphin found on Miramar Beach, on September 6, 2018, with superficial injuries. It was released but returned to the same beach after approximately two hours. Still alive, it was then re-released approximately three to four kilometers from the shoreline. Beaches were monitored for the next 48 hours but there were no more reports of stranding.
Amongst turtles, most live strandings were of olive ridleys, and, according to lifeguards, most of them were found entangled in nets or injured with flippers cut. Next in number were green turtles.
Among cetaceans, the maximum strandings (total) were of the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin, followed by finless porpoise.
All marine mammals and marine turtles are Schedule 1 species, meant to receive the highest protection under Wildlife Protection Act.
A spatial analysis done by conservation technology start-up Technology for Wildlife shows an abnormal distribution of stranding deaths over the two years of data. There is a high number of strandings for both turtles and cetaceans in Betalbatim and Majorda in south Goa, and both years show high number of strandings for the month of March.
“There seem to be high points and low points over both the course of the year as well as across the beaches. If, for example, the incidents had varied only by 1 or 2 units, we would not be able to determine anything but as there seems to be significant variance in the incidents; there should be something causing that variance,” said Shashank Srinivasan of Technology for Wildlife.
However, there’s not enough data to answer questions. “We’ve only been able to look at stranding data from March in 2018 and March in 2019; data from more years would be required to prove that something causes more strandings in March specifically,” he added.
Live and dead strandings
The marine stranding network response is different for live and dead strandings. A first responder keeps a live animal comfortable and a dead one from getting washed back into the sea.
Marine scientists also add that reasons for live strandings are different from those of dead animals washed ashore. “The dead animals would be passively moving based on offshore currents and, in most cases, the sites where the dead animal get washed ashore are also usually regions where a lot of marine debris would accumulate,” said Muralidharan Manoharakrishnan, a marine biologist with Dakshin Foundation.
“But, live strandings mostly occur close to the region where the cause of injury or trauma happens, causing the animal to beach itself,” he added.
In the two-year Goa data set, the number of dead strandings (219) is significantly higher than live ones (51).
“One can talk about a probable cause of mortality; it is difficult to determine the actual cause without a detailed necropsy,” said Mihir Sule, a marine ecologist at Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc). Sule is pursuing a Ph.D. on the humpback dolphin (Sousa) in Peninsular India at the IISc. “For example, if a dead marine mammal is found entangled in fishing nets, it does not mean that it died because of the fishing net. It could have died of a disease and was entangled in the nets. So, you can’t blame fisheries for its death,” he added.
For instance, a recent study has pointed out that parasitic and fungal infections have a significant role to play in harbour porpoise strandings along the Dutch and neighbouring coastlines. “Without proper necropsies one cannot determine the actual cause of death,” says Sule.
A necropsy in time…
Experts agree that there is a severe lack of trained marine vets in the country to carry out proper necropsies. Without a necroscopy it is hard to identify the cause of the strandings.
In Karnataka, Dr. Shantanu Kalambi of ReefWatch Marine Conservation is currently working with ReefWatch and the Karnataka forest department to establish a stranding network response system in place. “In the last nine months we have recorded 42 strandings along Karnataka’s coastline,” he says. Kalambi also managed to perform necropsies on some of them. Out of the 42, 16 were cetaceans, two of them were whales – one perhaps a juvenile blue whale and one Bryde’s whale. The rest were dolphins. “We found most of them with empty stomachs. They looked emaciated,” he said. “I’m not sure why they had empty stomachs.” The rest were sea-turtles. Thirteen were live strandings, all of which survived, and were released. Thirteen were found dead.
According to Kalambi, necropsies are best done on a fresh carcass within a week. Beyond that carcasses start to rot and it becomes harder to get vets to attend to such cases. “But many times, we get to know of the strandings too late,” he said.
“For a long time, no one even knew stranding was an issue on the Indian coastline,” said Kalambi, adding: “It is only in the last few years or so that awareness has spread.”
In Goa, all government-appointed veterinarians are animal husbandry vets. Workshops were held last year training them to conduct necropsies on turtles and marine mammals. However, in practice, the necropsies are infrequent. This happens because of logistical delays and shortage of resources.
“We don’t have staff dedicated to marine wildlife,” said Santosh Kumar, additional principal chief conservator of forests (APCCF) and chief wildlife warden (CWW) with the Goa government. “We are managing with the resources we have but we need a separate marine division along with a vehicle, marine patrolling staff, and wildlife veterinarians,” he added.
Way forward for better clarity
“We hope to have a separate marine division, create a marine cell with dedicated staff and resources,” says Kumar. “We need government approval for this but the work is in process.”
Kalambi is hopeful. “We need better education around this subject. The work has already begun. I think in a year or two, we will begin to have a much better idea about what is going on in our oceans,” he said.
ReefWatch Marine Conservation is currently working together with the Karnataka forest department (KFD) to set up systems and training for KFD staff and veterinarians along the Karnataka coast to attend to stranding cases.
“We need to discuss the need for creation of these new networks and be open to a wider collective and participation rather than a formal committee with only ‘experts’ for decision making and planning. The existing platform for marine mammals is a great example but it is still too technical for a lay audience to participate in,” said Muralidharan of Dakshin Foundation.
According to Srinivasan who has been analysing stranding data as part of Technology for Wildlife, the way forward is for all stakeholders to better understand why turtles and cetaceans are dying off the coast of Goa. This may require more thorough post-mortems done shortly after the dead animal washes up on the beach.
In addition, more efficient data collection by the stranding network through the deployment of mobile-based survey systems can speed up the decision-support system. The data thus collected can be used to allocate resources more effectively in the future.
“For example, if we can confirm that there are more live turtle strandings occurring at Betalbatim in March than at any other beach in any other month, then it may be possible to ensure that a veterinary team is on standby at that beach during that month to assist injured or confused animals,” he said.
Puja Mitra, a conservation practitioner who runs Terra Conscious believes that funding support from the state government and corporate donors can help turn this network from being a volunteer-run one to a more institutionalised one with a stable and sustainable system of response and monitoring.
This would assist the forest department to procure vehicles, create a treatment clinic, conduct training for the staff and hire veterinarians and work with ecologists to understand the implications of stranding events and their drivers and inform better conservation action on the ground.
“Building veterinary capacity is critical as the next step of this network,” she added.
According to news reports, a national policy on stranding network response is scheduled to be rolled out soon.
Banner image: Sea turtle entangled in a net found washed ashore at Betalbatim beach. Photo courtesy Drishti Marine.