Mumbai’s stranding network prepares for the monsoon | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Mumbai’s stranding network prepares for the monsoon

Jun 09, 2024 06:56 AM IST

For the city’s stranding network, comprising the Coastal Conservation Foundation (CCF), along with the Forest Department’s Mangrove Cell, and other organisations and individuals, it is now a herculean task during the monsoon to rehabilitate and respond to the stranded mammals for which they are working tirelessly

Mumbai: As the effects of climate change and human activities like fisheries become severe, more and more marine mammals are being washed up on Mumbai coastlines. With monsoon knocking on the city’s door, more marine mammals will likely wash ashore either dead or alive due to choppy waters; this event is called a ‘stranding’.

Mumbai’s stranding network prepares for the monsoon
Mumbai’s stranding network prepares for the monsoon

What happens after this is thus of critical importance as the event can indicate the health of the seawater, the presence of species, and the impact of natural and man-made factors.

For the city’s stranding network, comprising the Coastal Conservation Foundation (CCF), along with the Forest Department’s Mangrove Cell, and other organisations and individuals, it is now a herculean task during the monsoon to rehabilitate and respond to the stranded mammals for which they are working tirelessly.

“Every coastal city worth its salt should have a stranding network,” began Shaunak Modi, cofounder of the CCF. “When we began seven years ago, it was in an ad-hoc manner with dolphin researchers, Mangrove Cell officials, and animal rescuers. We’re now building it to be more structured.”

Importance of stranding network

The stranding network comprises everything from an informer network, the first responders, vets, researchers, and then, ultimately, the Mangrove Cell. Today, the team comprises the CCF, RAWW, an animal rescue team with vets, researchers, the Mangrove Cell, and more.

On Mumbai’s shores and beaches, the strandings to look out for are dolphins and turtles, with the occasional occurrence of pelagic and shearwater birds, whales and flamingoes. The risk of strandings increases multifold in the monsoon when the seas are rough.

Last year, the CCF held workshops with all lifeguards on the six beaches in Mumbai, training them for their role as first responders on the coast.

“As they are already present when the animal first washes ashore, we gave them the basic training of what to do immediately. If the animal is alive, it might be injured, depending on which it should be moved or not,” explained Modi. “If it is dead, we have different codes to identify the level of decomposition the body has undergone.”

Crowd control

The decaying body has a high chance of carrying pathogens and ailments that could pass onto humans, making it advisable not to touch it. “We’ve trained them on how to take photographs, which they send on a shared WhatsApp group. We also gave them kits with gloves, masks, measuring tape, and the SOP. After the first steps, however, all that is to do is wait for the Forest Department, as these animals are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act.”

The bigger task, however, is the aspect of crowd control, attracted as humans are by natural curiosity, and dogs and crows by the smell of flesh. Modi narrates the incident of a dead whale “beaching” up onto Juhu beach around ten years ago. “People wanted to take selfies with it, climb on top of it,” he said. “Keeping the danger of pathogens aside, even for animals, there must be dignity in death.”

Modi recounts the time a baby dolphin washed up on Juhu beach on a Sunday afternoon in 2021, landing to a flock of hundreds of spectators. “It was dead and decomposed, so even though it was inadvisable, I picked it up and carried it to a deserted part of the beach. The stalls there lent a large piece of cloth to cover it, where it stayed till the Mangrove Cell arrived.”

Preparing for the upcoming monsoon

The CCF held workshops with the Mumbai staff of the Mangrove Cell. In addition to the basics, they were briefed on why strandings occur, why the animals are more often dead than not, how to transfer the animals to a stretcher and transport them safely, and more.

Further plans involve expanding the workshops to cover all Mangrove Cell divisions along the coast up to Sindhudurg.

“A few months ago, we held a workshop with all stakeholders, including the NDRF and BNHS in Airoli,” said SV Ramarao, additional principal conservator of forest. “We plan to hold such workshops for all stakeholders to prepare them for strandings all over the state in the next six months.”

Challenges of stranding response programme

A wide majority of the cetaceans – aquatic mammals, including dolphins, whales and sharks – are dead by the time they arrive on the shore. Cetaceans are group animals, explains Ketki Jog, a dolphin researcher, and adds that an individual mammal stranding is often an indication of something gone wrong. But as these animals are big and strong and can usually hold their own in the waves, when they float and wash ashore, it is more likely that they are in too weak a state or dead.

With cetaceans, the options available for rescuers are also thin, due to the weight and size of their bodies. In some cases, when the animal is too big, the necropsy – a postmortem to ascertain the cause of death – and burial may even take place at the very shore the animal was found on.

With turtles, however, the chances of finding a stranded turtle alive and saving them enough to set them back out into the waters are much higher.

“Turtles can come close to the rocky shores and hurt themselves. In the case of male turtles, as they are not physically equipped to walk on land, they may be unable to get back into the waiver if the tide washes them ashore. If they turn upside down, it is hard for them to turn back and walk free,” said Modi, adding that for injured turtles, a transition centre is situated in Airoli where they are treated before being set free.

“The most memorable moments for me have been watching an olive ridley turtle being set into the Arabian Sea at Thane Creek after treatment, and a loggerhead turtle being released in the water at Versova,” recounted Modi. “This is for the most part, thankless work. But these moments make it worth it.”

The importance of a stranding network, however, doesn’t end in saving a life. It also offers a peek into the wondrous biodiversity that lies beyond the shores.

“We knew, from theory, that dolphins are present in Mumbai’s seas because of the habitat it offers,” said Jog. “But it is when they wash ashore that we come to know, practically, of their presence, and which specifies they belong to. We now know we have humpback dolphins, spinner dolphins, striped dolphins, finless porpoises, among others, in our seas.”

“I take comfort in knowing there are two species of whales in Mumbai’s waters, which defied our expectations,” said Modi, detailing the constraints of offshore research.

Speaking of turtles, Modi says leatherback turtles were found caught in a fisherman’s net, letting us know the species was still around after a long time. “There are five species of sea turtles in India, out of which four are found in Mumbai’s water. And we only know this because of strandings.”

Adding to the value of a stranding network is the insights into the mortality of marine life, a question heightened due to the manmade dangers of fishing nets and plastic pollution.

For its part, the Mangrove Cell offers 25,000 for every dolphin and 12,000 for every turtle stuck in a fisherman’s net, compensating them for the destruction of their nets and offering an incentive to set them free.

“The challenge is in figuring out if the death has been due to natural causes or not,” said Jog.

“Unfortunately, when dolphins do land up on our shore dead, their bodies have begun decomposing. When they die, dolphins float; due to the contact with air, their bodies disintegrate quickly, and gases form in their bodies and bloat them.”

Oftentimes, in the later stages of decomposition, after Code 2, a necropsy may not yield any substantial answers. This was the conclusion the mangrove cell arrived at on finding two dead dolphins in March 2024.

At the stage of code 5, a necropsy is better avoided. “The insides of the body are like a soup by then,” said Jog, and a burial follows. Thanks to the Mangrove Cell, however, the researchers are given the opportunity to photograph and measure the stranded animals, adding to their knowledge of marine life.

Expecting between four to five turtle standings and an indeterminate number of dolphin strandings in the coming months of rain, the city’s stranding network has been readier than ever.

“Around 10 years ago, we didn’t have a clue of what lies beyond our shores,” said Jog. “But now we can say we have at least scratched the surface. There is still a long way to go.”

If you spot any animal stranded on Mumbai’s shores, the stranding network can be contacted on 77100 00033.

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