The Mangrove and Marine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation of Maharashtra (Mangrove Foundation), Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

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Maharashtra has a 720km long coastline which harbors a rich marine biodiversity, including the five species of sea turtles known to inhabit the coastal waters of India (Hatkar et al., 2019). However, leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) have rarely been reported and lack photographic evidence to validate presence of the species. The leatherback turtle is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (Wallace et al., 2013) and is a Schedule-1 species protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA, 1972) of India. The leatherback turtle is locally known as ‘Kurma’ in Maharashtra (Sanaye & Pawar, 2009). It is highly migratory, spends most of its life offshore, and feeds on scyphozoa (Dodge et al., 2011). Within the wider region, leatherback sea turtles nest at Bird’s Head Peninsula, West Papua (Indonesia), Andaman and Nicobar Islands (India), Godavaya (Sri Lanka) and KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) (Shanker, 2004).

Very little information is available about the occurrence of the leatherback turtle on the west coast of India. Ten to fifteen years ago, two nests of leatherback turtles were recorded each in Sindhudurg and Raigad districts in the state of Maharashtra (Giri, 2001). However, no authenticated record of the nesting was available. A stranding of a leatherback turtle was recorded from the beach of Devbag, Maharashtra, in 1985 (Karbhari, 1985) but again no photographic record was available of the event. A leatherback turtle (no photos for validation but morphometric measurements support the species identification) was entangled in a gill net off Vizhinjam, Kerala, in 2008 and was released back to the sea (Anil et al., 2009).


Figure 1. Leatherback sea turtle being released from fishing net off Bharadkhol, Maharashtra. (Photo credit: Vishnudas Vaghe & Sadanand Choghale)

The Mangrove Cell (Maharashtra Forest Department) and the Fisheries Department of Maharashtra started a compensation scheme in December 2018, under which fishers who cut or otherwise damage their fishing gear to release a marine animal protected under WPA 1972 were given monetary compensation. Several awareness and outreach workshops were carried out in the coastal districts of Maharashtra by the Mangrove Cell to popularise the said scheme and to build a network of fishers to collect secondary data of endangered marine animals. Subsequently, this record of a leatherback sea turtle was shared by a fisher based in Bharadkhol (18.15° N, 72.83° E), a small coastal village in the Raigad district. The turtle was caught in a gill net on 25th May 2018 and was released back to the sea safely by fishers cutting the net. This is the first photographic record (Figure 1) of a leatherback sea turtle from Maharashtra. Using ImageJ software, the estimated length of the turtle was ~1.2m.

More needs to be known about the occurrence of leatherback sea turtles off the Maharashtra coastline, and could be gathered from similar reports from fishers or a research study.

We are thankful to Visnudas Vaghe and Sadanand Choghale (Bharadkhol fishermen) for documenting the release of the turtle and Mr. Mohan Upadhye, livelihood specialist with Mangrove Foundation, for building the network of fishers.

Literature cited:
Anil, M.K., H.J. Kingsly, B. Raju, K.K. Suresh & R.M. George. 2009. Note on the leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea (Vandelli, 1761) rescued at Vizhinjam, Kerala. Marine Fisheries Information Service, Technical and Extension Series 200: 23.

Dodge, K.L., J.M. Logan & M.E. Lutcavage. 2011. Foraging ecology of leatherback sea turtles in the Western North Atlantic determined through multi-tissue stable isotope analyses. Marine Biology 158: 2813-2824.

Giri, V. 2001. Survey of marine turtles along the coast of Maharashtra and Goa. Kachhapa 4: 16-18.

Hatkar, P., D. Vinhenkar & D. Kansara. 2019. Rescue and rehabilitation of loggerhead sea turtles Caretta caretta from Dahanu Coast, Maharashtra, India. Marine Turtle Newsletter 156: 26-29.

Karbhari, J.P. 1985. Leatherback turtle caught off Devbag near Malvan. Marine Fisheries Information Service, Technical and Extension Series 64: 23.

Sanaye, S.V. & H.B. Pawar. 2009. Sea turtle conservation in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra. Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter 9: 3-4.

Shanker, K. 2004. Marine turtle status and conservation in the Indian Ocean. FAO Fisheries Report 738: 85-134.

Wallace, B.P., M. Tiwari & M. Girondot. 2013. Dermochelys coriacea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T6494A43526147. Accessed on April 19, 2020.