Each year, Olive Ridley sea turtles return from their inter-oceanic migrations to the beaches where they were hatched. Hundreds of thousands congregate and mate in the offshore waters. Then, as if on cue, the females lumber ashore to lay their eggs. Their arrival -- by the hundreds of thousands on a given beach -- is heralded by the Spanish term for this remarkable event, the arribada. Arribadas occur in only three locations worldwide. One of the largest is on the coast of Orissa state in India. Now, the construction of a super port on the coast of Orissa threatens the existence of the Ridley sea turtles.
The Olive Ridley sea turtle offers one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Each year, Olive Ridleys return from their inter-oceanic migrations to the beaches where they were hatched. Hundreds of thousands congregate and mate in the offshore waters. Then, as if on cue, the females lumber ashore to lay their eggs. Their arrival -- by the hundreds of thousands on a given beach -- is heralded by the Spanish term for this remarkable event, the arribada.
Arribadas occur in only three locations worldwide. One of the largest is on the coast of Orissa state in India. To protect the endangered sea turtles, the Gahirmatha coast is designated a Marine Sanctuary. The Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, a Ramsar wetland site, offers further protection for a mangrove forest ecosystem, which is a nursery for a wealth of marine life. The Olive Ridleys depend on the fertility of the mangrove ecosystem for food each year when they congregate for mating and the arribada.
How is it possible that the Orissa state government is permitting construction of a massive deep-water industrial port less than 15 kilometers from the Olive Ridleys nesting beaches? If completed, the Dhamra port will be one of the largest in South Asia, with 17-kilometer channels dredged deep and wide enough to accommodate Panamax and Capesize vessels. Environmental organizations and local fishermen’s unions are asking the international community to help them stop construction of the Dhamra port at this location where its impacts on the sea turtles could spell extinction and its impacts on local fishermen could spell ruin.
Threats to Turtles and Fishing Communities
Sea turtle hatchlings break out of their sandy nests at night and must quickly find their way to the sea. They move across the sand toward the brighter horizon, the moon- and star-lit ocean. Artificial light from ports and populated areas disorients the hatchlings and they may never reach the sea. Artificial light also disorients the nesting females. In fact, Operation Kachhapa, a sea turtle conservation organization, charges that illumination from a mega-port at Dhamra could cause the Olive Ridleys to abandon the Gahirmatha beaches entirely. And go where?
Dredging for the port’s ship channels and construction of a 750-meter jetty will change sedimentation patterns, and these will affect the shape, dimensions, sand grain size and vegetation of the nesting beaches. These disturbances may also inhibit nesting.
Pollution, oil spills and ballast water discharged from the giant cargo ships would contaminate the nearby mangrove ecosystem, affecting the entire marine food chain. Local fishermen, whose livelihoods depend on the health of these fish breeding and spawning grounds, have joined the fight against the Dhamra port. K. Allaya, General Secretary of the Orissa Traditional Fishworkers’ Union, charges, “The Dhamra Port Project has ignored the basic livelihood needs of local communities, taking away their land, their fishing grounds and the productivity of the sea on which thousands depend.”
The port project’s Environmental Impact Assessment was done in 1997, but environmental organizations charge that it lacks any analysis of impacts on turtles and port site ecology.
TATA Steel, a very influential company in India, is building the Dhamra port in a joint venture with the engineering and construction firm Larsen & Toubro, with financial support from the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI). Although TATA originally maintained that they would reconsider the port site if it is established that Olive Ridleys are present in the area, they have ignored the findings of a team from North Orissa University that unequivocally established the presence of turtles there. As evidence, the research team recorded over 2,000 fresh turtle carcasses at and near the port site. Adding to the area’s ecological significance, they also found several rare species, among them horseshoe crabs and snakes and frogs seldom found on the Indian mainland.
As a member of the U.N.’s Global Compact for Corporate Responsibility, TATA Steel is pledged to the Precautionary Principle. With the survival of rare and ancient species hanging in the balance, this is a time to practice precaution.
On November 5th, 2007 Global Response reported that they had just learned that an international team of engineers has arrived at the site of the proposed port facility at Dhamra, India, and they plan to start dredging later that week.
The dredging itself, and the construction of the Dhama port, threaten the food sources and nesting beaches for hundreds of thousands of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles that congregate here every year to mate and lay their eggs.
To see video clips of these magnificent creatures and their spectacular arribadas, click here.