History and context
Chilika lagoon is an almost entirely enclosed body of brackish water, located on the east coast of India in the state of Odisha (Formerly Orissa see map below). It is the largest wintering ground for migratory waterfowl on the Indian sub-continent, as well as a productive nursery for many commercially important fish species. As such, it has been recognized as a RAMSAR site since 1981. In addition to supporting the livelihoods of nearly 200,000 fishers in 150 surrounding villages1, the lagoon is known for its natural beauty, birds and important temples in and around the lagoon. But it is also known for its Irrawaddy dolphins – one of the only well documented populations in India. This population was estimated to contain 95-112 individuals between 2003-20052, and population numbers appear to be more or less stable since then, although up to 7% of the population is thought to be dying each year3, mainly due to entanglement in fishing gear4. Years of study have shown that the dolphins are confined to the lagoon, with no observed movement in or out of the lagoon, and the nearest documented population of Irrawaddy dolphins occurring over 100km northeast in the Bhadrak region5 and Bhitarkanika National Park.
Dolphin-watching began in Chilika Lagoon in 1989, steadily growing until it involved an estimated 150,000 tourists per year in 2010/11. Tourism in and around the lagoon is organized by roughly six competing associations (with some starting and then going quickly out of business), who recruit fishermen and fishing vessels to organize trips on vessels and to take tourists to see dolphins and other tourist locations in Chilika. These fishermen adapt their open-decked fishing skiffs for tourism purposes by rigging up tarpaulin shades. Boat tours in the lagoon can include a variety of different components, but most include an element of dolphin watching, especially in the <50 km2 area of the outer channel of the lagoon where success rates of locating and viewing dolphins are close to 100%.3 The fees paid by tourists are as low as 2-3 USD per person6, and are divided between the boat owner (80%), sub-contracted (young) boat drivers (9%) and the association that has booked the trips (11%) (although these percentages may vary depending on the tour operator/agency). When package tours are sold from outside the Chilika region, up to 60% of collected fees are paid to the taxi driver who transports tourists to the jetty where they embark for the boat tour.
These tours have been viewed very positively by local communities, as they also generate income for villagers via the growth of traditional eateries and small stalls selling packaged snacks and cold drinks. Involvement in the industry has generated self-esteem as exemplified by the following comment from an interview with an elder in one of the villages (cited from Sutaria, 20093): “Daughter, I have fished here in Chilika for more than 50 years now, and fishing will always be primary, but I feel I get more respect and recognition from interacting with tourists. I like this, nobody respects us as fishers.”
However, by 2009, there were concerns that the expansion of dolphin watching tourism in the area might be putting unsustainable pressure on the dolphins. In the peak tourism months of October to January more than 2000 boat trips per month were run by only one of the two local tourism associations operating at that time3. By 2010-2011 over 900 vessels working under four separate associations were involved7. Observations in the outer channel where dolphins were concentrated revealed a continuous stream of tourism boats throughout the day, with only a short break at lunch time (1pm-3pm). The number of boats around a group of dolphins varied from one to at least seven boats at any given time3.
Nearly 450 interviews in 51 villages surrounding the lagoon revealed that, fishermen/local villagers generally recognized engine noise, propellers and “lack of space” as major causes of disturbance and a threat to local Irrawaddy dolphins, but they also wanted dolphin watching to continue, as an important source of income for local villages.3 Indeed, a study published in 2016 estimated the total expenditure attributable to dolphins in the Chilika economy to be approximately US$1.4 million annually6.