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January 15, 2020

Arrival by sea


January 15, 2020

What may be visible on the surface of the Earth may just be a small fraction of what you see beneath it.

Pakistan’s coastline and marine waters are blessed with countless marine species, some of which are endangered as a result of obsolete netting methods, fatalities due to fishing hooks or even illegal trade. Creating awareness and educating people about protecting these species is the key; for instance, along the coast of Balochistan where dolphins are considered sacred, people avoid killing these cetaceans, meanwhile adapting to a more refined fishing approach that curbs dolphin or turtle fatalities.

It happens in October and November each year, at a time when the beach is almost entirely deserted, as the sea turtles emerge, scampering onto the sand. This is the nesting period when thousands of turtles arrive to lay eggs into what is known as a mass nesting behaviour: arribada! Arribada is a Spanish word which means ‘arrival by sea’.

These turtles dig holes known as chambers and lay 80 to 120 eggs inside them; the chamber is dug at a safe distance of about 100 to 150 feet away from the shore. However, this is not it. The eggs are vulnerable to predator attacks in the cycle of competing, surviving, and later reproducing, and palpably so, eking existence out through Darwinism.

Stray dogs pose a serious threat to these eggs as they are often observed following a trail developed by beachgoers’ leftover food which often leads to the jackpot – turtle eggs.

The fortunate ones that are spared dog attacks hatch anytime between 50 and 60 days and the process continues until February when the second step of survival is crawling past the trash strewn across various beach spots. When that level is crossed, these hatchlings are still vulnerable to fishing nets spread out in the sea, illegal trade, and then later to plastic bags which are often mistaken by turtles as jelly fish, their favourite food!

Muhammad Moazzam Khan, technical advisor (Marine Fisheries) WWF-Pakistan and chairman Pakistan Whale and Dolphin Society says that their organisation proposed a solution based on which they advised fishermen using traditional fishing methods to place their nets at least two metres below the surface of water which later resulted in sparing thousands of turtles from being entangled and succumbing to a painful death.

Similarly, WWF-Pakistan has introduced a crew-based observers programme on-board tune gillnet vessels that records the instance of the bycatch of marine species including turtles; these members are trained to safely release any entangled bycatch.

Non-government organisations such as these and the government have been taking necessary steps to ensure that marine species are safeguarded against any such odds. The Sindh Wildlife Department for instance, has been quite active in terms of protecting the various species of marine turtles and has helped release hundreds of these reptiles annually since 1980. These past few weeks alone, they have released about 500 baby turtles already.

In Karachi, various NGOs, not just limited to the protection of these reptiles have taken onto the task of protecting turtles, besides people at the beaches. PALS Rescue, for instance, post monsoon season engages its lifeguards in safeguarding and releasing these turtle hatchlings while also organising turtle watching sessions to create awareness amongst the youth of the city.

Thanks to the combined efforts of these entities, the last decade has witnessed an increase in the population of green sea turtles by up to 20 percent. However, the threat still lingers on, the biggest one being global warming itself.

An interesting fact is that the temperature of sand determines whether the hatchling will be male or female; as per research, the warmer the sand, the higher the ratio of female turtles. With climate change driving up temperatures globally, the ratio of both genders has observed a significant imbalance.

For example, in Raine Island, Australia, researchers observed the biggest green sea turtle nesting ground in the Pacific Ocean and documented that female baby turtles outnumber their male counterparts by 116 to 1. What the case is in Pakistan is yet to be ascertained.

The known spots of the various turtle hatchings include Astola Island, Jiwani, Gwadar, Pasni, Ormara, Daran Beach, Sonmiani, Kund Malir, Phor, Churna Island, Mubarak Village, Hawkes Bay, and Sandspit.

There are five species of marine turtles found along the coasts of Sindh and Balochistan, namely, the olive ridley turtle, the green turtle, loggerhead turtle, hawksbill turtle, and the leatherback turtle. We often hear about turtle hatchings at Hawkes Bay and Sandspit. However, the biggest turtle hatching takes place at Astola Island of the hawksbill and green turtles. This particular spot is reckoned to be a very rich ground of green turtles where nesting takes place in July and December.

As this process continues for the next two months, these coasts will witness nature at one of its finest moments.

The writer is a communication professional, an artist, and a wildlife photographer.