Sea turtles face threat from Indian ports plan

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The Independent Online

One of the world's largest sea-turtle nesting beaches is facing a double development threat from industry on India's east coast.

A large port is planned either side of the main nesting site of the threatened Olive Ridley turtles in Orissa where up to 300,000 of the reptiles come ashore to lay their eggs every year.

The Olive Ridley, among the smallest of the world's seven marine turtle species, is found in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, and swims great distances to haul itself out on to the sandy beaches of Orissa for its annual egg laying ritual.

However, over the past 13 years, more than 130,000 Olive Ridleys have been washed up dead in the area, after being caught in the nets of trawlers and gill netters. And now the species, listed as "vulnerable" by the World Conservation Union, is facing the risk of being driven from the coast completely by the proposed ports on either side of its nesting site.

Tata Steel, one of the biggest industrial companies in India, is building a 294m deepwater port at Dhamra, near a river mouth, a mere eight miles north-west of the nesting beaches of the Gahirmatha marine sanctuary. This is one of the largest nesting beaches in the world for marine turtles, with 100,000 to 300,000 nesting there every year.

On the other side of the nesting beaches, the Korean steelmaker Posco has proposed a 343m dedicated port for its 12 million-ton steel plant, 42 miles to the south.

They are big developments: the port by the Indian conglomerate is likely to have a total capacity of 83 million tons a year within 10 years while Korean steelmaker's port will handle 31 million tons a year.

Conservation groups such as Operation Kachhapa and Greenpeace fear the ports would add to the existing problem of loss of suitable undisturbed breeding habitat.

The activists have singled out the Tata Steel port, given its proximity to the nesting beach and the ancillary development it would spawn. "Tata Steel's port at Dhamra would be an ecological blunder," said Sanjiv Gopal of Greenpeace India. "We recently conducted a rapid biodiversity assessment which found the presence of Olive Ridley turtles as well as the endangered crab-eating frog and the white belly mangrove snake. The results have made it clear that the project cannot go ahead, in the absence of a comprehensive and impartial environment impact assessment."

Greenpeace also referred to a satellite telemetry study by the Wildlife Institute of India in 2001 showing turtle movements near the proposed port. But thousands of them also die a gory death as they are trapped in the nets of fishing trawlers that illegally scour the coast.

"The artificial lights from anchoring vessels on Dhamra port and shore-based megaport-based industries would disrupt the breeding and nesting of the Ridleys as the hatchlings would be disoriented by artificial light," said Biswajit Mohanty of Operation Kachhapa (Sanskrit for turtle).

An expert body of the Indian Supreme Court suggested that the company and the local Orissa government should look for an alternative site.

"The routes that will be used by shipping will necessarily be through the turtle congregation areas offshore. Oil spills and sundry pollution will inevitably occur in the event of a large port being set up. It is therefore necessary that an alternative site is located for this port," the body said in response to a petition filed by a Delhi lawyer in 2003.