At the break of dawn - 5.30 a.m. to be precise, Senior Consultant, Carbon Consulting Company, Suraj Anuradha Vanniarachchy wakes with the intention of walking towards Adam’s Bridge in Mannar Island, just off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka. He has been staying in Talaimannar for two days, and with every intention to see the bridge before he leaves, he sets out across the beach. What he expects is a beautiful, clean and untouched sandy beach, but the reality is jarring.
“I was disappointed to see a beach full of garbage. From plastic to metal, wood and cloth, the beach reminded me of the Meethotamulla garbage dump. Less than 500 metres from Vayu Resort, I saw a turtle on the beach. With the intention of seeing one alive I silently walked towards it,” he said, in conversation with Ceylon Today.
To his shock however, this 4 foot long turtle was lying dead in the sand. After taking a photograph, he continued his walk towards Adam’s Bridge, coming across some dead fish and seven more dead turtles. “I felt like I was walking along a graveyard. This horrible experience also made me think ‘Is this the footprint we are going to leave for our future generation?’”
Vanniarachchy’s question sticks with you like chewing gum to a shoe. What footprint are we going to leave for our children? Is there even going to be anything to leave behind? At the accelerated rate in which our carbon footprint and mass pollution is rising, probably not.
The dead turtles are unnerving evidence of this. The reason for their dying in masses however, is still unclear, but there are several speculations. “One theory is that when a turtle is caught up in an illegal net, the fishermen put them back into the ocean and they drift towards the land and land on the beaches. Another also mentioned a high radioactive scenario in these areas but I don’t know if high radioactivity has any relationship with the dead turtles,” says Vanniarachchy.
Another theory suggests that these turtles may have died due to toxic water or polythene but without an autopsy or further research into the matter, one cannot come to a concrete conclusion regarding this grim situation.
To find out further, however, Ceylon Today spoke to Ocean Resources Conservation Association (ORCA) Team Leader, Prasanna Weerakkody, who illustrated that it might not actually be pollution. “Pollution comes from all over the place. There is a predominant coastal current that runs northwards on the west coast.
That goes all the way from Hikkaduwa, and Ambalangoda, moving straight through Colombo and Negombo and ends up at Mannar. This is because the Mannar headland is right across the path of this current. Hence all the pollutants and floating pollution that is dumped from all the canals and rivers, like the Kelani River, Kalu River, all end up there. So that’s a major source of pollution.” He went on to say that another source of pollution is dumping from India.
Weerakkody says that sometimes when you’re out at sea, almost 20 - 30 km away, you find large amounts of debris floating in the waters, including big items like broken plastic chairs and tables. These mainly come from India. This further evidences Vanniarachchy’s photos that indicate water bottles with Indian labels.
However, contrary to popular belief, the reason for the turtles dying at Mannar beach is not pollution. According to Weerakkody, the primary reason for all the dead turtles is more in line with the first theory Vanniarachchy talks about.
Radioactivity is definitely ruled out. As Weerakkody says, “There is radioactive sand in certain areas, but not here. And even where radioactivity is there, it is very low. It doesn’t kill anything.”
It is mainly due to one particular type of net that is used. Around this area there is a fishery for Rays. And especially for Rays, there is a net used called a Gillnet. The fishermen go in the evening and lay the net, leaving it there overnight.
“It has weights at the bottom and floats on the top and it stretches about 2 km wide and 15 ft in height. So anything that travels along the seabed that comes across it gets caught,” Weerakkody explains. The net is not a straight wall; it curves in a bit so everything gets trapped in.
This net is a major killer because it catches not only what they intend to catch, but a very large number of bycatch as well. Bycatch is everything but the targeted species that is caught by the net. In this instance, bycatch include a large amount of turtles and even dugongs.
And since the net spends around 12 hours in the water, by the time they reel it in everything that is caught in it is dead. So animals like turtles and dugongs are already dead when they pull the net out.
Weerakkody explains that what the fishermen say is that in the area north of Baththalangunduwa itself (the Northern end of the Kalpitiya peninsula), about 50 turtles are killed per day in this net. Just imagine, 50 in that area alone. Given, the Gillnet is used most prominently in this area, but prominently is nevertheless the keyword here.
Further, this number might be closer to the truth than we think. Though it does sound excessive at first, along with the amount seen dead on the beaches, there are also large numbers of dead turtles floating in the sea.
“This is not an illegal net. It’s a legal net but what happens is that though nets are introduced, nobody monitors them.
The Fisheries Department will authorize the net but it will be a long time before they realize the full impact of it and then they start trying to manage it. Quite a lot of these other nets have also been banned like that. Now I think it is high time that some action is taken on this net and it needs to be taken out. It’s too destructive,” Weerakkody explains.
And besides, it’s not only turtles that are being affected by this. Weerakkody points to a survey done by ORCA for two years. “In 2017 we documented about 13 dugongs killed, and almost all of them (about 90 per cent) were attributed to this net,” he says.
The dugong is one of the rarest animals in the country and their population had dwindled quite badly in the past. Weerakkody explains that when the area was closed for fishing during the war, the population seemed to have recovered to a reasonable level. “But now that the war has ended and fishing activity is blooming, they are being caught in large numbers. If 10 - 15 are killed per year, that’s on average about one per month that’s been taken out, including mothers and calves,” he goes on to say.
Since dugongs are mammals, their breeding rates are both low and slow, so if we progress at this rate we could definitely lose one of our most treasured species.
It’s not just that, almost every single species of turtle falls under some International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) standard of either threatened or endangered. The largest component of turtles caught here are usually Olive Ridley sea turtles. “They are the most common sea turtles here because we have large seagrass beds. We have a few green turtles and a few Hawksbills and maybe a few other species as well but mostly its Olive Ridleys,” Weerakkody notes.
Olive Ridley turtles fall under the threatened (vulnerable) category under the IUCN’s Red List, and Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered. Green turtles fall under the endangered category. So either way, all these little guys need protecting.
“Turtles are threatened by human activities. We are destroying their habitats and nesting grounds. Eliminating a species like turtles has serious repercussions for Biodiversity,” says Vanniarachchy.
Since it is a loose net, it might be difficult to get it out of circulation. But management of this net is one of the key needs of the hour in this area. “Ideally, take it out of circulation completely,” says Weerakkody. As he highlights, this is quite literally a matter of life and death, and action must be taken immediately.
Further, according to Vanniarachchy, a beach cleanup would also help get rid of all the plastic pollution that might be contributing to the cause. He also stresses the importance of practicing the 3 R:s Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. “Every one of us has to take this matter seriously. Blaming the authorities will not solve this problem. Start from your home.
Use compost bins to dispose kitchen waste. This will reduce the waste going out of your home by a significant amount. Use reusable bags for shopping. Avoid the use of polythene as much as possible,” he urges.
This article originally appeared in Ceylon Today.