Freelance journalist Karthikeyan Hemalatha has been covering the environment for eight years. But his interest in conservation goes back much further, to the age of 12, when he started volunteering with the Student Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) in his native city of Chennai.
One night in January 2015, a group of student volunteers from the non-profit group found as many as 35 Olive Ridley turtles washed ashore along a 14-kilometer stretch of beach in the teeming city on India’s east coast.
“Some of the turtles were found tangled in nets, but most lay bloated with their eyes popped out, indicating drowning,” Hemalatha wrote. Over the course of a year, volunteers would find at least 200 dead turtles.
The conservationists questioned if trawling activities were the main cause of the turtles’ deaths and Hemalatha, then a staff reporter for The Times of India, decided to investigate whether the government carried some responsibility for the incident.
The Olive Ridley turtle is one of the world’s most abundant species of sea turtles, found in warmer waters in the southern Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. But its population is declining, and it’s classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, since the species nests in a limited number of places and the loss of these habitats due to development or fishing activities can impact the entire population.
According to marine fishing regulations for the state of Tamil Nadu, trawlers are not allowed to fish within 5.5 kilometers of the shore. But Hemalatha says the regulation is poorly enforced, and turtles still get caught in trawlers’ nets even beyond the 5.5 km limit. In other provinces like Andhra Pradesh, the no-trawling zone has been extended up to 8km, he reported.
When responding to questions from Hemalatha, an official from the fisheries department said authorities had no means to enforce the no-trawling limits because they lacked tools, such as GPS devices, to monitor fishing activities, and laws are not in place requiring fishers to use technologies that would prevent them from netting turtles. The official said authorities only take action against trawlers in response to complaints from smaller fishermen.
Hemalatha’s story, published in The Times of India along with a large infographic, drew attention from the state government and justice system and raised awareness about the impact of fishing on the vulnerable turtle population.
In January 2015, the Madras High court filed a "suo motu" case, through which courts in India take up cases on their own, often based on news reports or observations. Considered public interest litigation, the court sought action against erring fishermen and initiated steps to protect sea animals, including Olive Ridley turtles. After the ruling, the state government of Tamil Nadu introduced a ban on mechanized fishing within five nautical miles of potential breeding sites identified by the forest department and a local research institute during turtle breeding season, from January through April.
Mr. V Arun, coordinator of SSTCN, praised Karthikeyan Hemalatha’s reporting, saying it made “the case become a high profile one and put immediate pressure on the government.”
For Hemalatha, the response to his reporting was unexpected but rewarding.
“I feel somewhat vindicated that the issue finally reached the court and pushed the government into action,” he said.
While the forest department has been responsive to suggestions and concerns from SSTCN, Hemalatha said, the fisheries department, which is much bigger, has refused to accept that trawlers cause turtle deaths.
“The case from the Madras high court was, therefore, important because it made the fisheries department responsible for the death of these turtles and ordered action from them,” he said.
Hemalatha has since written regularly on the threats faced by sea turtles trying to nest and has continued to follow how the state is regulating trawlers.
On Jan. 28, he reported on a new government committee formed to determine how to reduce India’s trawling fleet. More recently, he said, volunteers from SSTCN met with senior officials from Chennai, trawl boat owners, the wildlife warden and the coast guard to determine some precautionary measures for this year’s nesting and hatching season.
The meeting was not a direct result of the article, but Hemalatha said more people, especially officials, are talking about the problem.
“Governments across the country, more so in Tamil Nadu, are becoming more and more opaque; most information on their policies and implementation is closely guarded,” he explained. “It is up to journalists to bring it out for public scrutiny and ensure that the bureaucrats and politicians know that there are checks and balances in place.”
Hemalatha is currently based in Bangalore. He served as a Fellow with the 2018 Climate Change Media Partnership (CCMP), a project currently supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Foundation, covering the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco and the United Nations climate change conference in Poland in December. In 2018, he won first prize as part of The Statesman Rural Reporting Award, which recognizes journalists from across India for their reporting and "exemplary work" on rural affairs and the environment.