A leatherback sea turtle. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service
In its 60th meeting, held on January 5, 2021, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), India’s apex body for wildlife conservation, took a decision that baffled many in the legal and conservation communities.
The Galathea Bay wildlife sanctuary is located along the southeast coast of Great Nicobar island, over 11.44 sq. km. It is India’s most iconic nesting site for leatherback turtles. And the NBWL denotified it in its entirety.
The NBWL has a mandate to conserve and develop forests and wildlife. But it provided no justification for its decision except, ironically, that the area was needed for an “international shipment project”.
In an obvious acknowledgement that the project would adversely impact the turtle nesting here, the standing committee also directed the Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ administration to prepare a “comprehensive management plan for conservation and protection of leatherback turtles in Great Nicobar”.
According to the meeting’s minutes, the director of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, said a mitigation plan was needed to ensure marine turtles continue to nest here during the construction and operation of the project.
Port site issues
There are two related issues researchers have raised about the site the government has proposed for the port.
First: The meeting itself specified no specific mitigation measures, presumably because the project’s details weren’t available until March, when the 126-page pre-feasibility report came out. This document, entitled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’, was prepared by Aecom India Pvt. Ltd., Gurugram, for NITI Aayog.
An official body called the Environment Appraisal Committee – Infrastructure I, in the Union environment ministry, discussed this report in March and April. It then recommended the grant of ‘terms of reference’ for the work to continue and to conduct an environment impact assessment.
The pre-feasibility report recommends Galathea Bay as the most feasible of five sites to construct the port.
“India is currently president of the Convention of Migratory Species. We are in a leadership position to support conservation of these leatherback turtles and this does not include denotifying protected areas which are their breeding sites,” Neha Sinha, head of conservation and policy at the Bombay Natural History Society, said. “Galathea Bay should be restored and managed as the wildlife sanctuary that it was until recently.”
Aarthi Sridhar, a coastal researcher, asked, “What might be reasons for denotifying the sanctuary even prior to concrete project feasibility and clearances?” According to her, the NBWL’s decision suggests “pre-judgement of clearance outcomes and values, and signals lack of interest in the legally mandated process of examination of diverse ecological, economic and social reasons.”
Nesting site characteristics
The second issue is more directly related to the specific site and the port design the pre-feasibility report proposes. Turtle biologists who have looked at the plan said that if the port is built as such, it could mark the end of Galathea Bay’s status as a nesting site. This in turn seriously calls into question the NBWL’s claim that the mitigation plans will actually mitigate the problem.
The leatherback turtle can grow up to six feet long and weigh as much as 900 kg. There hasn’t been much research worldwide on the ideal characteristics of a leatherback’s nesting site. However, factors that seem to matter include “offshore bathymetry and obstructions, slope and elevation of the beach,” according to one paper published in 2013.
The same paper also writes that nesting is negatively impacted by “removal of natural vegetation and construction of jetties, seawalls, buildings and other structures [as this] disrupts natural beach accretion and erosion cycles, ultimately leading to a reduction in beach width, slope and elevation from loss of sand.”
“We know that leatherbacks prefer sloping beaches with deep offshore waters,” say Muralidharan Manoharakrishnan and Adhith Swaminathan, turtle biologists at the Dakshin Foundation monitoring turtle populations in the islands for many years. “This is most likely the same reason why Galathea Bay is good for turtles as it is also for a port.”
The port design
The design for the port at Galathea Bay envisages a 6-km berth for the port and two breakwaters 2.53 km and 1.37 km long. To “provide round-the-year wave tranquillity,” the pre-feasibility report writes, the idea is to restrict the width of the port’s entry to 300 metres.
“This can reduce access and the chances of nesting quite dramatically because of the alternation of the fundamental characteristics of the nesting beach,” Kartik Shanker, associate professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, said.
The leatherback turtles currently approach the bay through a mouth-opening more than 3 km wide. After the port comes up, they will have to force themselves through only a gap of 300 m, between the breakwaters.
“Galathea isn’t a very wide bay, and with the breakwaters constructed on both sides narrowing the entry into the bay and the adjacent beaches, I doubt leatherbacks will continue nesting there,” Manoharakrishnan said. “The breakwaters and the construction will only erode the beach and the associated disturbance from dredging, lights and increased human presence will dissuade leatherbacks from nesting,” since these reptiles are very sensitive to lights during nesting.
The recommended port site, the proposed design and the breakwaters are only some of the issues that will impact the turtles. There’s also the disturbance during construction, if and when it begins, the eventual shipping traffic and the ever-possible threats in the form of toxic spills and coastal pollution.
Taken together, the best mitigation plan will be to not have the project at all. If the project begins, nothing can mitigate the disasters awaiting Galathea Bay and its turtles.
Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. He is also author of five books on the islands including, most recently, Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story (Harper Litmus, 2019).