Dr Divya Karnad, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Ashoka University becomes the first Indian woman scientist and conservationist to be given the Future for Nature award in 2019, for her research work on sustainable fishing of Sharks and Olive Ridley Sea Turtles. She is also the co-founder of InSeason Fish project aimed at promoting sustainable fishing among fishermen and educating consumers about seafood diversity. Her research has successfully saved over 200,000 Olive Ridley sea turtles in Chennai.
A beach girl since childhood, she has forever been in love with sea animals, particularly the sea turtles of the Chennai seas. So much so, she grew up to be a scientist, specialising in conservation of marine wildlife. Divya is a native of Mangaluru and grew up in Chennai. “I was always found with animals around from the time anyone can remember. But meeting a group of students and professionals who frequented the beaches to save marine lives got me involved in marine wildlife. I started volunteering with them since 2002, after I graduated in bioscience. In fact, I was laughed at in my class, when I decided not to take up any entrance test while most of my classmates chose biology to study medicine later,” she says.
Dr Karnad credits her parents for her achievement because they allowed her to volunteer with conservation groups working on the beaches mostly at night. During her college days, she created a `Young Women in Conservation’ programme that enabled 480 students to participate in marine conservation initiatives.
Later she pursued her Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation from the PG programme run by the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Centre for Wildlife Studies and Wildlife Conservation Society-India. Divya received her doctoral degree in Geography from Rutgers University, USA in 2017 where she researched on fisheries management.
Consumers, markets not ready to adopt sustainable fisheries
Dr Karnad co-founded InSeason Fish, a seafood initiative during her doctoral programme. While fishermen are seen as major threats to marine biodiversity, she says it is not exactly so. “Our project was initially aimed to understand whether fishermen are interested in sustainable fishing or we are pushing them to it. My work with them made me realise they have their own justified arguments and ways of sustainability. They have long-term plans of maintaining the ecosystem while balancing the business,” she says.
She further added that many fishermen in India are already coming up with interesting solutions–like banning certain types of fishing equipment in some parts or not fishing during certain times, rotating the fishing cycle but not affecting threatened species, etc. “But they say that the market is not receptive to such changes because it wants more receptivity and predictability. That is why we have now turned towards speaking to consumers and educating them on sustainable fishing.”
Divya explains, “We are speaking to consumers on how to diversify their fish intake and be open to different fish during different times of the year. Fishermen say that fishing a certain type during a specific time gets them higher and better yields, while preventing some species from overfishing. All the fish are edible, none are in the bracket of threatened species. Indian fishermen also agree, saying they catch a huge variety of fish daily and across the year.”
Saviour of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles
“I had many questions in my mind for which I found answers during my masters and PhD programmes and thus continued to work deeply with sea turtles and other marine life. I researched that at a rural beach in Rushikulya, Odisha, sea turtles thrive better because it was also a zone under protection by the state government’s forest department. But the same species found on Chennai beaches struggle because of urban development. The hatchlings of sea turtles would typically look for bright lights and move away from the dark beaches towards street lights, when the East Coast road of Chennai was being developed. This, of course, made it worse,” Dr Karnad explains.
Through her research, she found solutions like having turtle friendly light systems–LEDs emitting orange and red band lights, which the turtles are not attracted to. Hence, turtles would not swim to the lighted zones on the streets. A year later, her research was taken by students’ sea turtle conservation groups in Chennai to the city municipality. And in 2009, the urban local government decided to turn off the street lights post 11pm between January and March, the breeding season.
“LEDs were not as common as they are now. So re-doing the light systems with LED bulbs was very costly which was not at all acceptable to the government. Although they compromised and decided to turn off the street lights at night, the locals raised issues about safety, and the lights were back throughout the night. We are now pushing industries that are sea-facing partially or fully to have turtle-friendly light systems on the beach. Although orange and red lights cannot be used in residential areas, many awakened resident welfare associations in Chennai are working with us to save the Olive Ridley Sea Turtles through other conservation methods,” Dr Divya said.
She will receive the conservation prize on May 3 in the Netherlands and an amount of 50,000 Euros. Simon Stuart, International Selection Committee of the award panel commented: “Divya is clearly an outstanding leader, and has already initiated an impressive number of programmes and organisations focused on marine species conservation in India. She is now giving her attention to multiple globally threatened shark species, working with an impressively wide array of stakeholders. She is clearly a creative, serious, focussed person with an excellent understanding of social, political, economic and biological issues, and the need to integrate these.”
About the award
The Future for Nature Award celebrates tangible achievements in protecting wild animal and plant species and the awardees of this conservation recognition get financial support and reinforced linkages to an international conservation network. This year, it received 125 applications across the world.