A short visit to San Francisco got me thinking about the way we look at marine biodiversity in India. Along with the Golden Gate bridge and Alcatraz island, one of the most iconic attractions of this lovely coastal city is a handful of loud smelly creatures that have tourists enthralled on a daily basis.
On my jaunts around the city I found myself gravitating to Pier 39. Here, a colony of sea lions has made the edge of Fisherman’s Wharf its home since 1989. The subject of much scientific study and research, no one is quite clear why the sea lions arrived in this particular area or why they continue to live here.
Shortly after an earthquake hit San Francisco back in 1989, the sea lions began taking up residence at the pier and forming a colony and soon they became part of the city’s landscape.
Over the years, the city has learnt to celebrate its sea lions. And now there is an interpretation centre devoted to the sea lions right above the pier that educates children and adults about the difference between seals and sea lions, their relevance to marine biodiversity and the story of Pier 39. All this as you hear the loud lazy animals grunting and barking right below.
Of course the sea lions weren’t always welcome guests. The boat owners were not too happy about having to avoid the sea lions in order to reach their boats. Ultimately, for the safety of the boat owners, it was decided to leave the dock to the sea lions. Boat owners who owned dock slips were relocated elsewhere in the Pier 39 marina.
The weight of the sea lions—running into thousands of pounds—caused the K-Dock area to submerge, become waterlogged and eventually fall apart. In an attempt to repair the dock, floats were built on which the animals could rest, indicating just how the animals had won the hearts of the locals.
The Marine Mammal Center’s biologists believe that the sea lions have chosen to inhabit Pier 39’s dock because there’s plenty of food nearby in the bay and the absence of natural predators keeps them safe. Also, the docks are easier to haul out on, more comfortable and more protected from storms than a rocky beach.
But the naturalists studying the sea lions have observed that in spite of the protective environment, the number of animals visiting this part of the Bay area has declined; it is speculated that the impact of climate change could be disrupting their natural migratory cycles. Along with this, plastic in the oceans is another big threat; quite often, sea lions get entangled in packing nets or fish nets and need to be rescued.
Not far from the sea lion centre is the San Francisco Aquarium Of The Bay with its collection of all the local marine wildlife on display. With a touch pool for kids and a walk-through where you can experience leopard sharks swimming above your head, the aquarium makes you look at the marine world in childlike wonder. The centres play an important role in educating people about the local biodiversity and the need to conserve them.
As I walked around the Bay area, I realized there is so little we know about marine diversity back in India. In fact, there are very few conservation education centres that celebrate or educate us about life in the oceans. This, in spite of the fact that we have over 7,000km of coastline and 12,000 species spread across different taxa from crustaceans to birds to reptiles and mammals.
Two incidents that happened in the past one month indicate just how deep our ignorance of the marine world runs. In January, as many as 90 short-finned pilot whales were washed ashore, on the coast of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu. While some attempts were made to push the beached whales back into the water, eventually at least 45 succumbed. Scientists are still not clear about what exactly happened that caused these animals to die en masse. In another incident, a 30 feet-long whale got beached at Juhu, near Mumbai. While stranding of whales is not uncommon, mass beaching continues to baffle scientists even now.
The next crisis facing the natural world will be in our oceans and seas. According to a report released by the World Economic Forum in January 2016, there will be more plastic in the sea in 2050 than fish. Already fishermen across India report a decline in catches—both in terms of quality and quantity—which should be a cause for concern.
In India, while our conservation policies are geared towards terrestrial biodiversity, there are many marine species that are not protected. And the crisis facing our seas will affect not just tiny creatures, but thousands of fishermen who live off it. I left California with a love for sea lions and a firm resolution to get to know the marine biodiversity back in my own country a bit better.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.
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