Here’s why it’s a crucial step

Cochin: Last week, Tamil Nadu notified India’s first-ever dugong conservation reserve in the Palk Bay region of the Gulf of Mannar, which lies between Sri Lanka and the southern tip of India.

Dugongs are marine mammals that graze on seagrass beds in the ocean. According to marine biologists, the decision to declare the dugong reserve – although “political” – was long overdue. Notification of these conservation reserves is important because they support local communities as important stakeholders, they said.

Mermaids in the sea

Dugong (Dugong dugon) – believed to have inspired mermaid myths among ancient sailors – are marine mammals that live in small groups in shallow waters. They are also called sea cows: a term that reflects the ecological role they play, being oceanic herbivores that nibble on seagrass beds in seagrass beds. They can be up to 3.5 meters long and weigh around 300 kg.

But although the animals are distributed in many parts of the Indo-Pacific, they are listing as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to their declining population worldwide. The species is already extinct in China. The dugong population in India is also declining: there are only around 200 dugongs left, according to some estimates. In Indian waters, you can spot dugongs near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and off the coast of Tamil Nadu in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay.

Here in Palk Bay, in a small patch of about 450 square kilometers, will be the country’s first dugong conservation reserve. In an order published in the September 21 state gazette, Tamil Nadu notified the dugong conservation reserve and delineated the boundaries of the area that will rise off the coastal districts of Thanjavur and Pudukottai.

“We conceptualized this species-based conservation reserve to protect this critically endangered marine mammal and its vital seagrass habitats with the support of local coastal communities comprised primarily of fishers and their families,” said Shekhar Kumar Niraj. Thread. Niraj was the Principal Chief Conservator of Tamil Nadu Forests when the decision to designate the Dugong Conservation Reserve was made. “In [the] In the long term, the conservation reserve will provide vital support to TN’s coastal environmental security.

According to the gazette order, the protection of dugongs and seagrass beds in this area will also contribute to “the farming of commercially valuable fish, crabs and shrimp, thereby benefiting thousands of small-scale and marginal fishers, who depend on the productivity of fishing for their daily lives”. livelihoods in coastal areas”.

“The designation of a conservation reserve – which sees people as important and responsible stakeholders in the conservation of dugongs – is a good thing. Photo: Tony Hisgett/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Notification “for a long time”

Decision to finally notify dugong conservation reserve comes more than a year after Tamil Nadu has announced its decision to do so. The notification was long overdue and talks to designate such a reserve have been underway for three years, said Vardhan Patankar, an independent marine biologist who has studied dugongs in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Notifying the reserve takes on even greater importance due to the many threats that endanger dugongs in these waters, despite the species being listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 ( which gives it protection comparable to that of tigers in India).

Gillnets are one of them. Being mammals, dugongs need to surface every three or four minutes to breathe. However, fishermen often set gillnets at night in shallow waters. Dugongs that surface become entangled in the nets and die. Nets are one of the main killers of dugongs in the area, Patankar said.

The newly declared conservation reserve for dugongs is a heavily fished area, he added. However, the state government has carried out extensive consultations with local communities and fishermen.

“There is a buy-in when it comes to fishermen,” Patankar said. Thread. “Because this is a community conservation reserve, people can still use the area for fishing even if they have to take steps to protect dugongs from fishing-related mortality.”

In this light, designation as a conservation reserve – which sees people as important and responsible stakeholders in the conservation of dugongs – is a good thing, as opposed to declaring the area a marine protected area which restricts fishing activities and thus embitters the local populations. communities, Patankar added.

According to him, the new dugong conservation reserve will also count as a OECM – or Other effective area-based conservation measure. OECMs do not fall within the network of protected areas (unlike wildlife reserves or national parks) but focus on the in situ conservation of biodiversity through sustained and long-term management bearing in mind locally relevant aspects such as as socio-economic and cultural factors. OECMs are part of the “30×30” target of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which India is also a signatory. The “30×30” objective aims to protect and conserve 30% of the world’s terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems.

So, the dugong conservation reserve is something of a “political move” that “looks good on paper” and also adds to India’s climate change mitigation measures, Patankar commented. However, it is still a crucial step for dugong conservation, he added.

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