With a coastline of over 7,500 kms, a continental shelf area of 468,000 km² and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 2.02 million km², India is among the 17 megadiverse countries in the world. Its 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. Along with the varied biodiversity at these sites, these ecosystems sustain almost 30% of India’s coastal population.
However, these ecosystems and the marine life encompassed within face a range of threats that includes rapid habitat degradation, drastic population declines from unsustainable harvesting of at-risk species, the incidental capture of megafauna, and climate change.
The WCS-India Marine Program aims to conserve the unique diversity of India’s coastal habitats and seas by working with communities, the Government of India, and partner organisations to overcome these challenges through a multidisciplinary approach. The Program’s efforts are focused on four broad themes: (1) strengthening the existing Marine Protected Area (MPA) network, (2) mitigating marine megafaunal bycatch (3) addressing the decline of apex marine predators such as sharks and rays, and (4) helping incorporate sustainability into marine-centric tourism and (5) promoting and supporting sustainable fisheries.
Strengthening Marine Protected Areas
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are any coastal or marine areas that are offered legal protection by State laws and regulations. India’s marine systems are threatened by unregulated fisheries and rampant coastal development. Currently, 0.45% of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone is protected in the form of 131 MPAs. As a signatory nation to 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 bridge this gap by working closely with coastal communities and government agencies to realize the notification of MPAs across the country.
We work in partnership with the Government of India and communities across the country’s coastline to facilitate the notification of marine protected areas in the form of community reserves, sanctuaries, national parks, and conservation reserves. We also work on the efficacy of enforcement to ensure compliance within the existing and new MPAs in order to meet conservation goals while also securing sustainable benefits for various stakeholders.
Mitigating megafaunal bycatch
WCS-India aims to reduce by-catch in Indian waters by identifying by-catch hotspots and facilitating the population monitoring programs for key species such as marine mammals, turtles and sharks and rays in partnership with government authorities and partner organizations. We aim to catalyze a “bottom-up” community-driven regulations with small-scale, non-mechanized and artisanal fisheries to sustain the community livelihood needs while simultaneously achieving the by-catch mitigation goals.
Strengthening conservation of sharks and rays
Elasmobranchs, consisting of sharks, rays and skates, are one of the most globally threatened groups of species. Scientific studies and anecdotal information from Indian fishers indicate that the biomass and the average size of sharks and rays landed has considerably diminished over time, with reports of local extirpations. This raises concern over the status of these resources and the long‐term sustainability of Indian shark fishery.
WCS-India works to strengthen shark and ray conservation in India by improving both the laws governing sharks and rays and their implementation. 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. To ensure all this work is based on the best science, the species-specific life history characteristics of sharks and rays is studied based on market and in-water surveys, catch levels, actors engaged in fishing and trade, and their socioeconomics.
Assessing the impact of dive tourism on coral reefs
The rise in marine tourism and water sports, and the rich biodiversity of the Lakshadweep islands has made these coralline islands a popular tourist destination in India. However, anecdotal accounts reveal that practices at the dive centers are not always in compliance with accepted norms for responsible and ecologically sustainable SCUBA activities. This leads to the damage of the fragile marine ecosystem by trampling on corals and other benthic organisms or disturbing other marine fauna through contact or proximity. In conjunction with coral bleaching and climate change, this could severely affect the ability of corals to grow and regenerate, affecting the ecosystem as a whole. As the diving industry in these islands continue to grow each year, WCS-India aims to record and assess its impact on coral reefs and provide regulatory recommendations for sustainable tourism.
Promoting and supporting sustainable fisheries
India is the world’s second largest exporter of seafood after China. Recent years have been marked by a drastic decline in global fish populations, necessitating the incorporation of sustainability into fishing practices. In Indian waters, local fish populations have nearly halved over the past four decades – 61% of fish stocks are completely fished and a further 29% are overfished. Further, incidental takes and bycatch hamper the survival of many threatened species of marine megafauna.
Addressing fisheries sustainability is a complex task, given that seafood is an important source of protein. The demand for consumption must therefore be met, while also ensuring the sustainability of fish stocks. In addition to food security and nutrition, small-scale fisheries are the primary source of livelihood for several, often impoverished communities across the Indian coastline. The longevity of the artisanal and non-mechanized fisheries sector is therefore crucial to meet the livelihood dependence of these communities.
WCS-India works with a range of stakeholders to promote sustainable fisheries. We aid small-scale fisheries by assisting in securing vital fishing grounds, thereby mitigating conflict with the mechanized fishing industry.. Additionally, we facilitate vocational training to help provide supplementary income to marginalized communities. Further, the program aims to work towards strengthening fisheries legislation to ensure fish stocks are conserved while meeting community livelihood concerns. Finally, to help consumers make better, informed decisions, we promote responsible seafood consumption initiatives.