- Seagrass habitats can combat climate change by acting as massive carbon sinks by capturing carbon from the atmosphere. They also protect vulnerable coastlines from rising tides.
- Meanwhile, the currently vulnerable dugongs or sea cows graze about 40 kg of seagrass/day and this constant trimming results in regenerating a healthier sea grass ecosystem.
- India is now reaching out to fishers through awareness programmes and incentives to protect both the endangered dugongs and their habitat – the seagrass meadows.
For the last decade, the southeast coast of India has been battered by weather extremities ranging from tsunamis, storms, floods to droughts. The devastation caused by tsunamis led to the widespread planting of mangroves as bio-guards along the coast (as areas on the east coast with dense mangrove forests suffered minimal loss during the tsunami in 2004). But the lesser-known seagrass (a marine flowering plant) is said to play an equally important role in coastal protection in this region. Over the last few years, scientists, government officials, and fishers have come together to protect the remaining seagrass ecosystem and along with it, the legendary dugongs (or sea cows), known as the ‘farmers of seagrass’.
Dugong (Dugong dugon) is a herbivorous marine mammal which feeds exclusively on seagrass. It can eat up to 40 kg of seagrass every day.
Seagrass, dugongs and coastal livelihood
K. Sivakumar, Scientist F, Department of Endangered Species Management, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) told Mongabay-India that seagrass habitats are one of the most productive marine systems as many fin and shellfishes breed there. He says, “Further, this habitat is excellent with respect to carbon sequestration (it can capture carbon from the atmosphere up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests) and in preventing coastal erosion. This habitat also acts as a filter and prevents impure materials from reaching the nearby coral ecosystem.”
According to a Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) factsheet, across its range, which extends across over 40 countries throughout tropical and
subtropical coastal waters from East Africa to Vanuatu in the Pacific, dugongs help maintain seagrass habitats also important for other species such as marine turtles, and play an important role in the culture of many coastal communities.
The dugong is currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but its conservation status is highly variable throughout its range and the species may, in fact, be endangered or critically endangered in some parts of its range, a study points out.
With dugongs acting as the farmers of seagrass habitats, Sivakumar says that their role in seagrass maintenance is ineffable and essential. “Dugong leaves the required gaps in between seagrasses that facilitate further growth and makes the seagrass habitats conducive for breeding of fishes that are commercially important for the livelihoods of fishermen. We could estimate the economic values of a dugong and its habitat as Rs. 2 crore (Rs. 20 million) per year in India,” he informs.
Getting fisherfolk to understand the need to conserve seagrass and dugongs for the future of their livelihood has been a major challenge in their conservation efforts.
In India, dugongs are found in the Gulf of Mannar, Palk Bay, Gulf of Kutch and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Once found in abundance in Indian waters, the dugong population has reduced to about 200 individuals, according to WII.
Marine scientist Balaji Vedharajan from OMCAR Foundation (Organization for Marine Conservation, Awareness, and Research that works on marine conservation) says that the dugongs were a local delicacy in north Palk Bay in Tamil Nadu. He recalls how fishers used to tie up the massive dugongs near the coast to kill them later for wedding feasts or local festivals. But in the last few years, there has been a change in the mindset of coastal communities, thanks to the outreach programmes run by NGOs like OMCAR Foundation, state forest departments, and efforts by the WII.
Challenges in conservation of seagrass and dugongs
According to WII researcher K. Madhu Magesh, fishing trawlers are actively used to ‘sweep’ out the sea for fishes near the Palk Bay. Apart from events like storms, such bottom trawling is a major threat to the seagrass ecosystem.
Raghu (32), a fisherman from Adaikathavan village in coastal Tanjore district agrees that bottom trawling literally takes out every life form in the sea, including the seagrass. For instance, he says, even the smallest marine worm (locally called as Uri) which the crabs and squids feed on are swept away by these trawlers, thereby leaving nothing for traditional fishers like him.
As seagrass restoration remains crucial for both the livelihood of fisherfolk and the ecosystem of the region, Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute (SDMRI) successfully experimented on the manual transplantation of seagrass sprigs in the Gulf of Mannar. This seagrass restoration was again successfully replicated twice (in 2017 and 2019) by the OMCAR team in Palk Bay with the support of the Tamil Nadu forest department. But Balaji of OMCAR says it makes more sense to first protect the existing natural seagrass by removing threats like trawling.
As for dugongs, apart from the loss of its seagrass habitat, the by-catch, boat traffic, ghost nets or plastic pollution are all major threats to its existence. Marine researcher Rukmini Sekar tells Mongabay-India that although dugongs can live up to 70 years old, they have a slow reproductive cycle and take a year to produce a single calf.
It doesn’t help that dugongs can only stay underwater for six minutes before resurfacing to breathe, making them vulnerable to poaching. Explaining further, Sekar says, “Attempts to breed these dugongs in captivity were also a failure. Opting for translocation of dugongs to other viable locations (for instance, Chilka lake boasts of abundant seagrass) may backfire too and we do not have enough dugongs to sacrifice for research. As of now, our best bet is to conserve dugongs in their existing ecosystem through awareness.”
Read more: What is seagrass?
Reaching out to coastal communities
Balaji believes that behavioural change of the locals is the only way to sustain marine conservation. For close to a decade, his organisation (OMCAR) has been working with the local community to ingrain the importance of dugongs and seagrass through community workshops and awareness programmes for schools. “We help fishers with alternate livelihoods like livestock rearing (to prevent overfishing) and also involve them in our projects like seagrass restoration so as to give them a feeling of ownership towards the conservation efforts,” said Balaji.
Fisher K. Murugan (38) from Adaikathavan village, who helped restore seagrass in Palk Bay, is mindful of how the restored seagrass enabled breeding and increase of species like squid. “The tides also reduce in the presence of seagrass,” he tells Mongabay-India, hoping that the seagrass would protect the only future he knows.
WII on its part has reached out to coastal school students through its dugong scholarship programmes. Catering primarily to the children of fishermen, the programme introduces dugong and the need for marine conservation through a scholarship exam for class 9 and 11 students. This year, the programme covered 1500 students in Tamil Nadu who they hope will become ‘dugong ambassadors’ in their community. WII has also established a Dugong Volunteer Network on Whatsapp with more than 1000 fishermen (covering Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and Andamans) who communicate through the messaging platform to help in both monitoring and rescuing dugongs.
For 40 years, Naguran from Keezhatottam has been fishing in the waters of Palk Bay. “Around 15 years ago, our area was filled with lush sea grass and we could find fishes breeding around it. But now, increasing storms have totally destroyed the seagrass and along with it, we have lost our fish. When we understood that dugong was important to protect what was left of the seagrass, as a community, we decided to release any dugongs that get caught in our nets.” He has since released two dugongs caught in the region. The WII motivates such fishermen with compensation for the net and an honorarium of Rs. 10,000 for releasing the dugong.
Madhu tells us that promoting the sea cows as the kadal thai (sea mother) who protects their livelihood, has appealed to the sentiments of fishers. Senthil (40) from Vadakupudukudi village in Tanjore district agrees, “I was not able to see the fishes my father used to bring home and there is much less (varieties) for my son now. I think it’s time for us to think about what we leave for the next generation and saving dugongs might be one step in that direction.” So far, nine dugongs have been successfully rescued and released with the help of fishermen in Palk Bay.
The way forward
To further dugong and seagrass conservation, Sivakumar of WII proposes that the Coastal Regulation Zone should prohibit the trawler fishing within the territorial water i.e. 12 nautical miles from the coast be left exclusively for traditional fishermen. He also hopes that India’s first marine conservation reserve would materialise in Palk Bay in the near future. Madhu adds that making dugong a part of the school curriculum could do much for its conservation; And let’s hope the next generation gets to see the dugongs not merely in those books.
Banner image: A dugong near Marsa Alam, Egypt. Photo by Julien Willem/Wikimedia Commons.