Marine ecologist Divya Karnad, 2019 Future of Nature awardee, on working towards sustainable fishing

  • Marine ecologist Divya Karnad has been working with fisherfolk along the Coromandel and the Konkan coasts, with a desire to bring about change in unsustainable fishing practices.

  • This work has won her the prestigious Future of Nature Award for 2019.

  • Karnad told Firstpost how she got involved in the marine world, her experience of working with fisherfolk and why she would like sustainably caught fish on Indian dinner plates.

Divya Karnad is a marine ecologist with an interest in Indian sharks and olive ridley turtles. She is an Assistant Professor of Environment Studies at Ashoka University, NCR. Karnad’s expertise lies in understanding the use of marine commons, fishing practices and working with fisherfolk along the Coromandel and the Konkan coasts. With a desire to bring about change in unsustainable fishing practices — both at the consumer end and among the fishing communities — Karnad formed InSeason Fish, a sustainable seafood initiative. This work has won her the prestigious Future of Nature Award for 2019.

Here she speaks with Firstpost about how she got involved in the marine world, her experience of working with fisherfolk and why she would like sustainably caught fish on Indian dinner plates.

How did you get started with marine science?

Prior to starting my Master’s, I was in Chennai. While in college, I got involved in the Student Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) and one of the things I did was set up a regular programme for students from my college — all women — to participate in turtle walks organised by SSTCN. So I was always, in some way, connected with marine conservation and this continued while I was pursuing my Master’s. I was interested in many things during my Master’s, but this was always my fall-back option and that’s how I ended up working on sea turtles for my Master’s thesis.

 Marine ecologist Divya Karnad, 2019 Future of Nature awardee, on working towards sustainable fishing

Divya Karnad

Where did you carry out the fieldwork for your Master’s dissertation?  What did you look at?

My research was based in Odisha and Chennai. In Odisha, I was looking at mass nesting of olive ridley turtles and trying to understand the impact of temperature on hatchling sex ratios because for turtles, the sex ratios vary depending on temperature. I was also trying to understand the impact of light on hatchling orientation because on a completely natural beach, they would orient towards the natural horizon (which would be the sea). But wherever the beaches have been developed and we’ve put in artificial light along the beach, the sea turtles tend to orient towards land and these lights. This was especially becoming a problem in highly developed areas like Chennai. So I was conducting experiments to check what parameters of the light impact the sea turtles. I did the same thing in Odisha to see how it could be countered on a less developed beach like Rushikulya where so many turtles nest that it is physically impossible to follow all the hatchlings and rescue them. I tried to come up with broader solutions that we can implement along the beach itself to prevent hatchlings from getting disoriented.

How did you come up with this research idea for your Master’s thesis? What made it novel?

The idea came out of the fact that I had already been working with SSTCN and lot of the issues we were encountering were related to light. The northern part of Chennai beach was developed and the southern part was not that developed. Now the southern part has become an IT corridor. But we were seeing an increase in the lights at that time in 2003. As I did the wildlife biology course, I also realised this whole issue about turtle sex ratios and possible impact of climate change on them. So that’s when I thought of looking at what’s happening with the turtles.

In the early to mid-nineties, a couple of scientists — Basudev Tripathi and Bivash Pandav — had done research to show that these turtles were being impacted by light. But the idea of thinking about it as finding a solution for co-existence, or of development projects taking turtles into consideration, was more (prevalent) in the US and other countries than in India. That was the aspect I was interested in. Because I felt that at some point that one may not be able to stop this kind of coastal development, so there has to be a solution.

What made you take this work forward during your PhD at Rutgers University?

That also started in Odisha. There was one night when I was monitoring the beach and a bunch of fishermen from the nearby village had got together and were really upset about something. Unfortunately, I happened to walk into the area while they were conversing. So I became the target of their anger. It became scary as it was in the middle of the night. I thought that was the end of my research or the last time I was going to the sea. Luckily, the situation calmed down, but for a really long time after this I was scared to go back to that village. But my experience in Odisha was that the fishermen were always nice. So this experience was an anomaly… to see them behave that way.

Finally, I worked up the courage to go back and ask them what their problem was and why they had behaved that way. They explained to me how, during the turtle season, even though Rushikulya beach is not a protected area, the species is protected. So there is a lot of forest department presence, as it is an important nesting site for the turtles. During the whole nesting season the turtle hang around in the sea, they form a congregation in the sea and so on.

Divya Karnad giving a talk to seafood consumers at The Bombay Canteen. Photo courtesy Dhruv G Arvind

Divya Karnad giving a talk to seafood consumers at The Bombay Canteen. Photo courtesy Dhruv G Arvind

These fishermen felt that whenever they go out to fish, even if they did try to put their nets out they would only catch turtles. They had to write off about four months in a year during the nesting season; they were practically not catching anything else, only netting turtles. Even if they happened to land the turtles, they would get into trouble with the forest department. And so, four months a year, this is an issue. And two months after that there is a fishing ban along the east coast. So they were not able to fish for about six months of the year. That is a huge thing for people dependent on daily income. They were talking about conservationists coming in and conserving the turtle, but what about the people who live along the coasts who aren’t really having the impact that the big industries or development projects have?

This got me thinking of the people and also the fact that you can’t really think about having a marine protected area cut off from the rest of the sea, like you have on land… having them along the Indian

Updated Date: Mar 04, 2019 10:19:20 IST