Olive and Green: Shades of Conflict Between Turtles & Fishers in India

The drivers of discord between humans and wild species often lie deeper than the shallow measuring implements of science can reach. We explore the lived experience of conflict between fishing communities and turtles in two very different socio-ecological contexts in the Lakshadweep Islands and the Orissa coast.

The uneasy interface between people and wild species is increasingly becoming the new conservation battleground as resources dwindle and the human footprint on wild spaces increases. There has been a significant body of work over the last few decades documenting this conflict and it is as varied and diverse in context and intensity as the ecosystems, species and socio-cultural situations it spans. The vast majority of these studies quantify conflict in terms of losses incurred to humans and wild species as a direct result of this conflict—a long litany of loss of life or livelihood that seeks to accurately account for the intensity of this conflict. While useful, these neat quantifications sometimes fall short of justifying the often apparently disproportionately negative responses that communities harbour towards wild species. In many instances of human-wildlife conflict, there is a large unexplained gap between what scientists can measure as conflict and the perception of that conflict by the communities that experience it on a daily basis. On the other hand, there are a range of contexts where conflict is absent despite all the ingredients that cause it elsewhere. In order to explore the gap that separates mensuration from perception, we need to go beyond a balance-sheet accounting of conflict. It is this lived perception that ultimately drives a community’s response against wild species, and any attempts at mitigation must clearly deal with managing these perceptions.

Looked at this way, we may find that the taproots of the human-wildlife conflict lie deeper than the direct negative interactions that animals and humans have on each other. While these direct interactions (crops raided, lives lost, animals persecuted, etc) may often be the flash point for conflict where it manifests itself, this may be only a small part of a story that embraces a much larger narrative. We classify these interactions as ‘first order conflicts’, and they result from a clear, direct set of impacts that wild species and human communities have on each other. Beyond these, however, there are often a whole class of interactions which we term ‘second order conflicts’ that are the outcome of a complex suite of indirect pathways that may, at first glance, be invisible. Because they do not involve directly palpable losses, they may be difficult to quantify, but are, nonetheless equally significant drivers of discontent.

The following narratives come from opposite sides of the subcontinent, the Lakshadweep Islands and the coasts of Orissa. In both locations, turtles and fishers are pitted in a fierce conflict over the loss of livelihood. In both instances, indirect, second order interactions drive the conflict. In the Lakshadweep, the pathway of conflict is primarily ecological, and involves the complex interaction between green turtles and the ecosystems they use and modify. In Orissa, the pathways have more to do with socio-politics than ecology, where the over-ardent efforts of conservation itself could be playing an important role in fuelling second-order conflicts between olive ridleys and fisher communities.

The Mydas Touch: Fishers, Turtles And Ecologically-Driven Second Order Conflict In The Lakshadweep

The Lakshadweep atolls are unusual in having some of the highest population densities in rural India cramped onto a mere 23 sq km of land. Fishing is the primary occupation here, and is dominated by a pole-and-line fishery for the pelagic skipjack tuna. Fishing on reefs and lagoons is, by contrast, fairly artisanal, and limited to local consumption, supplying the evening meal. During the monsoons, the lagoon and reefs take on an added significance, since tuna fishing stops, and these more protected habitats become the primary sources of fish for the island communities.

On the island of Agatti, one of the 12 atolls in the archipelago, conflict between fishers and turtles hinges on the firmly held belief that green turtles (Chelonia mydas) are chiefly responsible for reductions in lagoonal fish catch. At first glance, this perception appears to be based on a naive, even fanciful, understanding of green turtle biology, since adult green turtles are principally herbivorous. More detailed interviews with lagoon fishers reveal a more sophisticated set of perceptions. Fishers identified several mechanisms by which they see green turtles reducing their fish catch. Some of these are very clearly first order interactions-turtles disturb fish away from nets, and can often break nets by swimming through them. Almost every fisher we spoke to in our surveys had experienced these first order interactions, and were vehement that it caused them significant losses. Replacing a broken net represents not merely the considerable price of a new net (approximately INR 1,800), but a raft of lost opportunity costs over several days before the gear can be replaced.

Additionally, and more importantly, fishers also identified green turtles as being responsible for causing reductions in their fish catch by overgrazing seagrass growing in the lagoon, thus reducing adult fish usage of meadows, and reductions in fish recruitment to lagoon environments. What the fishers were reflecting here were a series of relatively involved ecological mechanisms driving an eventual reduction in their livelihood.

Validating these second-order interactions required a series of descriptive and experimental studies which are still ongoing. We started by documenting the densities of green turtles in the Agatti lagoon. Fishers began noticing an increase in green turtles numbers in the mid 1990s, and while earlier clandestine culling of turtles helped keep the population numbers in check, the increasingly strict enforcement of conservation laws in Lakshadweep made this more difficult as green turtle numbers grew. Our first surveys of green turtle populations in 2005 showed a startlingly high density of green turtles in the shallow meadows of Agatti, among the highest congregation densities recorded anywhere. These densities corresponded to rates of herbivory, and at the highest density locations, green turtles were consuming more than 80% of the primary production of the dominant seagrass in the lagoon. It is unclear whether seagrasses can cope with such high levels of grazing. When we examined the population structure of seagrasses across this gradient of turtle grazing, the impacts were clear-the highest grazed locations had highly skewed populations, dominated by younger age groups. The seagrass here were also much shorter in overall length, narrower in width, and with significantly longer vertical rhizomes. Taken together, it was clear that seagrass in the high herbivory areas of Agatti were stretching themselves to the limits of their growth, doing all they could in order to keep up with intense and sustained green turtle herbivory. Reports published a decade earlier indicated that the dominant seagrass in Agatti was Thalassia hemprichii, a relatively slow-growing seagrass species that is characteristically a later successional species in seagrass meadows. By 2005, T. hemprichii had been all but replaced by Cymodocea rotundata, a much faster growing species, potentially better able to cope with higher levels of herbivory.

 It was apparent from our investigations that green turtles could, and were, having a clear impact on the meadow itself. In retrospect, given the high densities of green turtles in the lagoon, this was hardly surprising. Like elephants, green turtles are classic ecosystem engineers, modifying the very structure of the environments they inhabit. Whether these modifications could change fish populations communities themselves as the Agatti fishers claimed required us to broaden the scope of our studies. To validate this, we compared lagoon fish populations in Agatti with the meadows of Kadmat, an atoll that is comparable to Agatti in almost every respect apart from having very low densities of green turtles. This makes Kadmat an ideal comparison. Its meadows are a mix of Thalassia and Cymodocea, and, in the absence of green turtles, the seagrass grows taller, thicker and and denser. And it became immediately clear that this difference in seagrass structure was vital for fish communities. These control meadows harboured a biomass of fish nearly four orders of magnitude higher than the grazed Agatti meadows. Several species present in these control sites were completely absent in Agatti, and fishers we spoke to confirmed that these species were once abundant in the meadows before turtle numbers increased.

While several elements of the mechanisms we are describing here still need to be validated with further ecological studies, what is evident is that green turtles, at the densities found in Agatti, are causing ecosystem-wide changes to seagrass meadows with dramatic flow-on consequences for fish usage, and, eventually, the livelihoods of the Agatti fishing community.

This raises important and troubling questions for our understanding of conflict and its mitigation. It is possible to envision programmes to compensate fishers for lost gear and opportunity costs as a result of first order interactions. In contrast, handling second-order interactions like the ecological degradation caused by high turtle densities poses a more significant challenge. What happens when a charismatic flagship becomes a problem animal, not merely for fishers, but for the ecosystem itself? If we have to make the fishers of the Lakshadweep constituent partners in conservation, we need to place at least as much value on the vital habitats the green turtle uses as we value the turtle itself.

The Olive Riddle: Socio-Politically Driven Second-Order Conflict Between Turtles And Fishers In Orissa

Once touted as the worlds largest olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) rookery, the rhetoric about this population of sea turtles has revolved largely around considerable exaggerations of their demise. Shortly after the discovery of the rookery in the 1970s, a couple of film-makers wrote that this population was on the verge of extinction due to the take of turtles for the meat market in Calcutta. Even then, Jack Frazier, veteran of sea turtle conservation, wrote an article about the dangers of crying wolf. He could not have been more right.

In 1982, EG Silas, then director of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, made his prescient statement that if trawling were unchecked, “Orissa will become the world’s big-gest graveyard for sea turtles”. The call to arms was taken up by both biologists and conservationists in the 1990s, when Operation Kachhapa was launched, to win protection for olive ridley turtles by reducing mortality from trawl fishing. The battle was launched on many fronts, including enforcement and legal action, but also through the media. Over a few years, trawl fishing was demonised in the media as murder and slaughter of ‘innocents’. For their part, trawl fishing associations dug their heels in and insisted that they were only a small part of the larger problem that affected the Orissa coast.

In the Gahiramatha marine sanctuary, where the Forest Department focused its efforts, a forest guard was kidnapped by fishermen, and drowned when thrown overboard. A year later, when approached by a fishing boat, forest officers opened fire, killing a fisherman from the community. The die was cast. Conflict was entrenched.

Unlike other instances of human-wildlife conflict, olive ridley turtles do not directly harm the people they come into contact with. Nor do they consume their resources. Traditional communities either revere turtles or consider them harmless. How then did this climate of mistrust and ill-feeling come about ? How did it become so vitriolic and pathological that reasonable dialogue became impossible? For example, when pushed to a corner, trawler owners claimed that sea turtle mortality must have been because of migration fatigue, pollution and labour pain.

Olive ridley turtles migrate each winter to the coast of Orissa in the thousands to breed in the offshore waters of Gahirmatha, Devi River mouth and Rushikulya within about the 5 km of the shore. They come ashore to nest solitarily from December to April, and mass nesting occurs typically during February and March, when 50,000 to 150,000 turtles nest together over 4-5 days. Over the last two decades, more than 10,000 dead turtles have been counted along the Orissa coast each year, drowned in both trawl and gill nets, totaling more than 100,000 turtles or more in the last decade.

The zone of contact is in near shore fishing areas, reserved for traditional fishing through the Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Act in the early 1980s. While the Act was created to protect traditional fishing, it was invoked by conservationists in the 1990s and 2000s to protect sea turtles. In a few years, the Act and turtle conservation came to be seen as anti-people, and in some areas, gill net fishermen joined trawler associations in their protest against sea turtle conservation. During these years, further laws were passed to protect the offshore waters of the mass nesting beaches, to implement Turtle Excluder Devices, and to establish a marine sanctuary at Gahirmatha. In principle, these Acts affected local communities to varying degrees, but lack of awareness of the law, indiscriminate enforcement by the forest department, and strongly worded rhetoric from conservationists and the media meant that these served to further drive a wedge between community and conservation.

The story of Turtle Excluder Devices in India is too long to be told here in its entirety. Briefly though, they were introduced in Orissa through a workshop in 1996. At the time, the US had passed a law requiring all shrimp exporting nations to use TEDs. After protests in the WTO by a few countries including India against unfair trade practices, the US position was eventually upheld. In Orissa, the TED came to be seen as a symbol of unfair conservation imposition by the State and by western powers.

Though many turtles were killed, the deaths were incidental. Sea turtles did not themselves harm in any fishermen in a significant way. The conflict was mediated by conservationists and the State through rhetoric that made fishermen villains and through laws that restricted their access to fishing. Conservation itself had caused the conflict. Trawl fishers demanded to know why they alone were targeted when there were many other anthropogenic causes of sea turtle mortality; why was coastal development not addressed, for example ? Traditional fishermen rightly asked why they were not partners in the conservation enterprise. Furthermore, trawler fishermen hardly form a single homogenous community; at one end, the work force are labour often hired from the fishing community, while at the other, owners are businessmen sitting in distant landlocked cities. Similarly, artisanal communities across the coast have different histories and traditions. It is unlikely that the conflict can be resolved without a more nuanced understanding of the history of these various fishing communities. Our current research on conflict in Orissa focusses on the history and interactions between fishing communities and conservationists, and between communities and State, in the context of conservation and natural resource management.

Nicholas Mrosovsky, another renowned sea turtle biologist, wrote a few years ago in the Marine Turtle Newsletter about the dangers of hype. While scientists have largely echoed the conservation lobby in predicting the demise of olive ridley turtles, perhaps the end is not as near as it seems. There are danger signals, but thirty years on, there is no unequivocal sign that this population is on the verge of extinction. As a consequence of this hype in Orissa, most of the State and conservationist responses have been knee-jerk responses, with no long term vision, and little chance of success. All the funds and effort spent on draconian enforcement have not reduced sea turtle mortality, but have increased conflict between State, conservationists and local communities.

In recent years, the Orissa Marine Resources Conservation Consortium has attempted to bridge the gap between traditional communities, community based organisations, and conservationists towards a common agenda for marine conservation. Other agencies have attempted to dialogue with trawler associations with regard to the use of TEDs. Even the implementation of fisheries laws alone would protect traditional fishermen, sea turtles and marine resources, but progress has been slow for many reasons, not the least of which is the divide created by the politics of the previous decade. After all, sea turtles are a flagship for coastal and marine habitats, and conservation politics should not create a battlefield in the very habitats that they utilise and represent.

At the doorstep of a new decade, we advocate a strong community centric approach to marine conservation in Orissa, an approach where resources are conserved both for their intrinsic biodiversity value and for local livelihoods; a shift from incidental catch to the incidental conservation of sea turtles.


On the face of it, the conflict in Orissa and Lakshadweep represent very different contextual situations. Yet, if you squint a bit, you can see common threads running through these narratives with important cautionary lessons for conservation. At one level the fishers and turtles merely effect a quick costume change as they switch the theatre of conflict from the seagrass meadows of Agatti to the nesting beaches of Rushikulya and Gahirmatha. In both narratives, lives (turtles) and livelihoods (fishers) are lost or compromised. What ties these conflicts together however is not so much the similarity of their actors but the processes that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. In both instances, the primary motivator of conflict is not some commonly shared resource that both turtles and fishers fight over. In both instances, the pathways to conflict are much more involved, and evolve through indirect (second order) mechanisms that may defy measure-ment, at least with the crude instruments of understanding we normally employ as empirical conservation scientists. Whether the specific pathways are ecological (as in the Lakshadweep), or socio-political (as in Orissa), these second order interactions, although more difficult to describe and validate, could account for a greater part of conflict than we imagine.

Perhaps even more important is the perplexing paradox these case studies present for conservation. In our eager, sometimes over-eager, attempts at species protection, it is often easy to lose the bigger picture, resulting in perverse consequences for conservation. We may find ourselves inadvertently embroiled in a much larger war in our evangelical enthusiasm to win individual conservation battles. Conflict will find its own resolution when we can acknowledge and address its true lived experience, even if this experience may not be directly measureable with the naïve callipers at our disposal.

This article is from issue


2010 Dec