Marine Conservation Program

Marine Conservation Program

India has a long coastline of over 7,500 kms, with a continental shelf area of 468,000 km2 and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 2.02 million km2. Owing to the varied climatic regimes and diversity of habitats within this vast area, the country boasts a rich biodiversity, and is among the 17 mega-diverse countries on Earth. India’s marine life is housed within a plethora of habitats- from brackish lagoons, estuaries, coastal marshes and mudflats, to mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, coral reefs, and sandy and rocky beaches. These ecosystems play a vital role in the country’s economy, supporting livelihoods and sustaining almost 30% of India’s coastal population.

The past few decades have been characterised by rapid habitat degradation, the unchecked advance of mechanised fisheries, and inadequately planned resource extraction. Human activities are largely responsible for the drastic decline of marine megafaunal populations, local species losses and the collapse of fisheries over the country.

WCS-India has been working to address some of these issues by working with communities, our many partner organisations, and the Government of India to overcome these challenges through multi-interdisciplinary approaches. In particular, we focus our efforts on five broad themes, viz, (1) strengthening the existing Marine Protected Area network, (2) conservation of marine ecosystems- coral reefs, mangroves, seagrasses and deep seas, (3) conservation of marine mammals, sea turtles and elasmobranchs, (4) addressing unsustainable fisheries and bycatch reduction, and (5) marine law, policy and issues related to their implementation.

STRENGTHENING INDIA’S MARINE PROTECTED AREA NETWORKS

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are any coastal or marine areas that are afforded legal protection by State laws and regulations. They are a useful tool for maintaining biodiversity and overall ecosystem functioning. In addition to protecting ecosystems, they have helped increase fish catch in some areas through a process called the ‘spillover effect’. Community reserves and other similar forms of MPAs can thus protect livelihood concerns while safeguarding marine wildlife and their habitats.

Given that in India, mechanised fishing, unchecked coastal development and mineral resource extraction are on the rise, the country’s marine systems are under severe threat. Currently, 0.45% of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone is protected in the form of 131 MPAs. As a signatory nation of the Convention on Biological Diversity- 1992, India has committed to protect at least 10% of its marine areas by the year 2020. WCS-India aims to help bridge this gap by working closely with stakeholder communities and Government bodies to catalyse the notification of MPAs across the country.

The first proposed site for our work on MPAs is at Angria Bank, a shallow sunken atoll situated 105 km off the coast of Maharashtra. The region supports a rich diversity of corals, algae, fish and marine megafauna, and therefore serves as the ideal site at which to initiate our efforts. WCS-India has thus initiated the process of facilitating the notification of Angria Bank as an MPA.

Subsequently, WCS- India aims to work in partnership with the Indian Government and communities across the country’s vast coastline to facilitate the process of notifying several other regions as protected areas in the form of community reserves, sanctuaries, national parks, and conservation reserves. Finally, we propose to work on the efficacy of enforcement to ensure compliance within existing and new MPAs in a manner that meets conservation goals while also ensuring long-term sustenance of stakeholder livelihoods.

CONSERVATION OF CRITICAL HABITATS AND SPECIES

The Indian coastlines, surrounding waters and islands support a variety of important habitats and ecosystems – from coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangrove forest to salt marshes. They play a key role in protecting the coastline from erosion, sustaining marine life, while serving as a source of nutrition and livelihood for human communities. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are succumbing to the pressures of natural and anthropogenic pressures with overfishing and climate change seen as the greatest long-term threat.

In the face of these disturbances, WCS-India aims to (1) document patterns and processes of marine ecosystem, (2) describe on-going shifts on various marine ecosystems caused due to the impact of anthropogenic and climate change, (3) assess the impact of marine tourism on reef ecosystems and provide interventions to promote responsible activities, (4) implementing specific bycatch mitigation strategies in targeted hotspot areas within the Indian coastline, (5) addressing issues of overfishing, and (6) conserving threatened and key megafauna, such as sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and rays.

STRENGTHENING SHARK AND RAY CONSERVATION IN INDIA

Elasmobranchs, consisting of sharks, rays and skates are one of the most globally threatened species today. Despite having survived for 400 million years, their diversity and varied conservative life history characteristics (slow growth, late maturity, low fecundity) render them vulnerable to overfishing with low chance of population recovery.

India is reported to be amongst the world’s leading shark fishing nation where sharks and rays are considered to be one of the most vulnerable exploited marine resources. The international demand for shark fins in the 1960’s first incentivized the harvest, retention and trade of elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) in India. Feeding this demand, elasmobranch fishing grew due to demand for export of shark fins to developing a domestic market for shark and ray meat in South India, with ongoing export of shark fins, cartilage, oil and mobula gill rakers. However, scientific studies and anecdotal information from Indian fishermen indicate that the biomass and the average size of sharks and rays landed, has considerably diminished over the same time period, with reports of local extirpations. This raises concern over the status of these resources and the long‐term sustainability of the Indian shark fishery.

WCS-India thus aims to strengthen shark and ray conservation in India through a series of complementary activities, including: gathering baseline data on the species and species-specific life history characteristics of shark and rays based on market and in-water surveys; catch levels and actors engaged in shark and ray fishing and trade; and the socioeconomics of sharks and rays. We aim to curb the decline of sharks and rays by updating the current regulations by enlisting species in the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; establishing international trade regulations by bringing the shark fin trade under CITES control; improving the protection of key regions for sharks and rays through MPAs and improved fishing practices. Collectively, these activities will immensely improve the conservation status of shark and ray populations in India.

For further queries or information, please write to marine@wcsindia.org

WE STAND FOR WILDLIFE