The ‘Turtlenecks,’ as we liked to call ourselves, were a group of 15 students who, in the second year of their liberal arts undergraduate studies, chose an interdisciplinary project proposed by Prof. Andrea D. Phillott for our Discover India Program (DIP) experience. In the preliminary stages, as we were writing up a proposal to work with Prof. Andrea, we were apprehensive about how the students within the group would be able to contribute towards a single project. As it stood then, only two students were pursuing Environmental Studies and the remainder were from a milieu of other academic backgrounds, including Applied Math, Sociology, Psychology, Finance, Communications, and Literary Cultural Studies. However, the project quickly morphed into one that offered the opportunity to examine an environmental issue from scientific, sociocultural, and economic perspectives.
The main focus of our project was sea turtles, and Prof. Andrea’s expertise in the field was instrumental in building the enthusiasm with which we took up the project. We began our research with a review of existing literature to understand and gauge the scope of what had already been done and where we could contribute further. During this process we learnt that sea turtles are an important component of India’s natural heritage and exist in five species : the green, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley turtles. They feed in India’s coastal waters and nest on the mainland and island beaches. As the sea turtles spend most of their life at sea, studying their population biology is challenging, and the apparent lack of sea turtles on the beaches while on-field was a bit of a downer. However, in our literature review, we found out that sea turtles are vulnerable to a number of threats, the largest of which are impacts from fisheries and that the majority of recent research on sea turtle biology and threats in India have been focused on populations of the East coast. And so we decided to focus our project on the West coast due to the existing knowledge gap. In a span of the assigned 10 days to conduct research, we could not have possibly covered the entire Western coastline and a quick survey revealed that our group predominantly had Marathi, Konkani, Kannada, and Hindi speakers, which led us to decide our research locale.
In the last week of September 2018, we interviewed 93 fishers at Sagareshwar Beach, Vengurla, in the Sindhudurg District of Maharashtra to document their local ecological knowledge about sea turtles, the fishing gear and practices they employed, and their interactions with marine wildlife. Local ecological knowledge, or LEK as referred to in shorthand, reflects the accumulated understanding of nature by an individual or community based on their observations and experiences in a particular location. It is a vibrant field of study and analysis, and strengthens information obtained by other research by enhancing knowledge specific to a locality. Thus, in our interviews, we found that fishers had observed all five sea turtle species in local waters. This was important information as it set a new record for the sighting of loggerhead turtles for the Sindhudurg District coast, and there were even accounts of leatherback turtle sightings which had not been reported in the last 20 years. Fishers’ LEK resulting from their interactions with and observations of turtles when fishing identified a decrease over time in the size of local populations. However, we could not use their responses to estimate local sea turtle numbers or distribution.
Fishers were quite frank in their reporting of at least one sea turtle per year being accidentally caught in their fishing gear; we received such responses by more than half of them. They also described increasing numbers of turtles getting entangled in their gear over time. When sea turtles were observed floating at sea or stranded on the shore, they were most likely suffering the ill effects of being entangled in such gear and/or inhaling sea water. Sometimes, they were entangled in lost or discarded gear which was abundant in local waters, and couldn’t free themselves from such ‘ghost gear’. The most likely source of ghost gear are fishers and fishing villages, as some respondents disposed of their nets on the beach or at sea. This was another vital inquiry as ghost gear is a known contributor to sea turtle entanglement and mortality globally, especially in the Indian Ocean, thus making it geographically topical.
As we spent most of our research time shifting between the different locations of the beach while interviewing respondents as they brought in the day’s catch, it was surprising to see heaps of discarded net lying along the sand. However, the local community’s awareness of the same was a welcoming sight as we often came across groups of people picking up torn nets, broken bottles, and scavenging for floats every other day. This, along with an analysis of our findings, inspired a series of recommendations that could potentially aid the reduction of accidental turtle capture in fishing gear. These include changes in fishing gear and practices, such as the depth of nets and amount of time they remain in the water, and use of simple technology such as net illuminators. Suggested methods for mitigation of this threat also include physical removal of gear from the ocean, appropriate disposal of nets, and economic incentives for the same.
There were also local cultural investments that the fishers had been actively or indirectly participating in conservative efforts. Most of the fishers we interviewed were Hindu and believed that the sea turtle was Kurma, an incarnation of the deity Lord Vishnu, a cultural investment which potentially facilitated conservatory practices such as releasing entangled turtles caught in their nets. Economic incentives also played a role in shaping such behaviors, and the majority of fishers we interviewed were aware of the legal protection of sea turtles. In several cases, there was a conflation of the two, with fishers agreeing with the ban, a revering of Kurma, and simultaneously being understanding of the issues that sea turtles face while being stuck underwater. However, we did receive reports of the illegal consumption of sea turtle meat and eggs to be an ongoing practice which should be further investigated.
We were proud to present our research findings to the FLAME community in the form of a report, presentation, documentary, and exhibition display. While our report focused objectively on our research and findings, the other components allowed us to express our experience creatively. Our presentation was choreographed in order to deliver the information we collected and our documentary focused on understanding the nuances of the relationship between the fishers and turtles through sociocultural, religious, and economic lenses, and our exhibition was an artistic representation of what stood out most for us during our research on-field, with a smattering of conservation haikus as the narrative of a sea turtle. Most of all, we were proud to have done our part in passing on this research to those who will directly benefit from our research in the form of summaries shared with the fishing community themselves and the local forest department.
The experience enriched us in ways we could never have imagined and gave us a deeper understanding of the manner in which interdisciplinary studies may benefit us. The 15 Turtlenecks who started off a group of enthusiastic yet dissonant minds were soon drawn together under the aegis of a singular project that often shifted to show us new ways of contributing to intellectual spheres and furthering our academic inquiries. At the end of it all, FLAME’s Discover India Program is a great way to initiate students into the rigor as well as challenges of research, which is useful in multiple ways at the undergraduate level, and an important introduction to the universe of knowledge.
Anjali Chandawarkar is a final year Literary & Cultural Studies Major with an Open Minor focusing on Sociology and Film and has an affinity for artwork and music.
Arundhati Karumampoyil is a final year Literary & Cultural Studies Major with an Open Minor exploring Film and Theatre Studies and has a keenness for cultures and languages.
Kunjika Pathak is a final year Literary & Cultural Studies Major with an International Studies Minor and has an avid interest in Food and Gender Studies.