Dr Divya Karnad, a marine biologist working on shark conservation, is the first Indian woman to win the prestigious Future for Nature award. An assistant professor of environment studies at the Ashoka University, she is among three young researchers globally selected for the award, given by the Netherlands-based Future for Nature Foundation, which includes a sum of 50,000 Euros to work on conservation projects.
Capturing, killing and sale of four shark species — whale shark (Rhincodon typus), Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon), Ganges shark (Glyphis gangeticus) and speartooth shark (Glyphis glyphis) — is banned in India under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972. Shark finning and fin exports have also been banned separately. Yet shark fishing and trade continues since sharks look similar with their sharp teeth and often get misidentified by fishermen.
Why are sharks in danger?
There is a huge demand for shark fins in Southeast Asian countries, while shark meat is used in domestic markets. Shark parts go into making of Sorrah Puttu and other dishes that figure on seafood restaurants. In order to protect threatened shark species, it is necessary to involve both fishing communities as well as people who consume shark products.
“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,” said Simon Stuart from the International Selection Committee for the award.
Growing up along the coast, it was the sea that inspired Divya to dedicate her life to marine conservation. During her studies, Divya’s interest in marine ecology grew. It inspired her to set up a Young Women in Conservation programme, enabling 480 students to participate in local marine conservation. This was just the start of an impressive list of marine-conservation programmes she would create.
Among other programmes, Divya helped set up the Turtle Action Group and founded Inseason Fish. The Turtle Action Group is a self-governed India wide network of NGOs, which Divya trained in conservation research. Alongside her PhD, Divya founded InSeason Fish as an initiative to tackle the challenge of sharks as fisheries bycatch.
The domestic demand for shark meat is identified as being a primary driver of retaining shark bycatch in India. By drawing connections between people and marine wildlife that don’t immediately seem obvious (for instance, by involving chefs), Divya addresses a whole new group of conservationists.
Boon from the Future for Nature award
With the financial support from the Future For Nature award, it will become possible for Divya to construct SharkWatch, a citizen-science programme to record data on shark fishing and landings at major fishing harbours along the Coromandel coast. A shark conservation programme targeting shark bycatch and consumption will be set up. This programme will inform fishermen about the threatened status of sharks in Indian waters, monitor seasonality and locations of shark bycatch to propose seasonal no-take areas, and “Shark Ambassadors” will be identified and incentivised.
Divya relies on three approaches to achieve marine species conservation. Firstly, she uses scientific evidence to guide her conservation actions. Secondly, she translates scientific results so they can be understood by the public. And her third approach is setting up conservation tools like InSeason Fish, sustainable fisheries are promoted and the bycatch of sharks will be reduced.