A marine photographer documents sightings of tar balls along the coast

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When the submission of evidence of tar balls and oil deposits along Mumbai’s beaches failed to elicit a response from authorities, Shaunak Modi, marine wildlife photographer and director of the Coastal Conservation Foundation, launched a base open-access data and information resource on these sightings on the Indian coastline.

Launched in February this year via a Twitter handle, @IndianOilSpills, the database should be relevant, especially during the monsoon, when archival sightings become more common. Tarballs are sticky, dark-colored balls made up of crude oil. They are formed by the weathering of crude oil in the marine environment.

They are transported from the open sea to the coasts by sea currents and waves, according to the research paper Diversity of Bacteria and Fungi Associated with Tar Pellets: Recent Developments and Future Prospects by Laxman Shinde, Varsha & Suneel, V& Shenoy, Belle Damodara (2017), National Institute of Oceanography (NIO).

To raise awareness and get authorities to notice the environmental issue, Modi, who has been documenting tarball occurrences since 2018 at Juhu Beach, called on citizens to document the sightings in the Mumbai metropolitan area.

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With his Twitter account @IndianOilSpills, Modi aims to reach locals and fishermen and share photographic evidence of tarball occurrences. He is also in the process of creating a website for this purpose.

Modi, who is also part of a network called Marine Respondents which helps rescue stranded animals such as turtles and even whales from the Mumbai coastline, said when he investigated, fishermen told him that spots of oil had been seen in the fishing grounds throughout the year and not just during the monsoon.

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After the onset of the monsoon, residents and conservationists repeatedly witnessed the deposits reaching the city’s shores. Deposits are found several times on the beaches of Juhu and Versova located in the western suburbs of the city. This year, as early as April, the Oil Spills network documented deposits on Haji Ali and Girgaum Chowpatty. While tar deposits along Juhu Beach during high tides are common during the monsoon, experts said the volume was unusually huge and widespread last year.

“The idea behind creating the database is to understand the magnitude of the problem. My goal is to make this information freely available to anyone in government who needs it – pollution office, researchers, anyone…” Modi said.

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