Gujarat’s fishermen saviours

The Indian coast may well become a birthing place for the large whale shark

Published - May 19, 2018 04:15 pm IST

Between 1999 and 2000, about 600 whale sharks along the Indian coast were dismembered.

Between 1999 and 2000, about 600 whale sharks along the Indian coast were dismembered.

The slaughter lasted nearly five decades. After all, it was a fish, even if it was the world’s largest. It wasn’t against the law to catch it as long as fishermen abided by the Fisheries Department’s rules. Today, whale sharks have many well-wishers among the fisher communities of Gujarat.

The fish is a global citizen of tropical seas, arriving off the coast of Gujarat in the summer. Until the 1980s, fishermen used oil extracted from its liver to waterproof the hulls of wooden boats. Since the largest of the aquatic creatures can be as big as a tanker vehicle, the men may have seen it as an oil reservoir. When bitumen became readily available, the shark could have won a reprieve. But it didn’t.

In the 1990s, when fish catch declined, reducing profit margins, East Asia paid top dollar for shark fins. Entire villages along the Gujarat coast turned to whale shark fishing.

Men went out to sea in mechanised boats and small wooden dugout canoes on the lookout for a dark shape in the clear blue waters. Once they spotted the surface-feeding fish, they drew closer and shot hooks through its blunt nose and fins. Although the shark dwarfs humans by several orders of magnitude, it posed no threat since it eats plankton, fish eggs, and small fish.

Trawl fishers wore down the gentle creature by letting it run and then gunning their engines at full throttle. Canoe fishermen tethered it to empty barrels that stopped the struggling fish from diving. After the fight had gone out of it, the men floated it back to shore.

In a Traffic India report, Fahmeeda Hanfee says, each fish fetched between ₹40,000 and ₹1,50,000 in the year 2000. A set of four fins was worth ₹15,000 to ₹30,000. Exporters also traded the meat, skin, and cartilage, while some used the liver oil on their boats or sold it to manufacturers of shoe polish. In one year, between 1999 and 2000, Hanfee recorded about 600 of these plankton-eating fish had been dismembered. With so much money to be made, the massacre of whale sharks would have continued.

The turning point in their fate came with the film Shores of Silence by Mike Pandey and subsequent lobbying by Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). The government brought the species under Indian wildlife law in 2001, the first fish to be thus honoured. However, three years later, the majority of the fisherfolk hadn’t heard that killing whale sharks is a prosecutable offence. The organisation started a programme, launched by Morari Bapu, a popular bard and spiritual teacher, to spread the news. Bapu went out to sea at Dwarka and blessed a tangled whale shark before setting it free. He said the fish was like one’s pregnant daughter returning home to give birth. His metaphor hit home, and fishermen promised not to hunt it.

Even if they didn’t deliberately go after the shark, they accidentally netted it. What were they to do then? WTI urged the men to immediately cut the fish loose. But nets are the tools of their trade. If the fishermen destroyed them, how would they survive?

The Gujarat Forest Department started a compensation programme in 2005, paying ₹25,000 for every damaged net. Standard procedure called for one of its staff to check if the claimant’s story was true. How did the Department verify events at sea? On land, farmers show damaged crops or carcasses of livestock killed by wild animals. A trapped whale shark wouldn’t survive if fishermen had to wait for an official to authenticate the incident. WTI distributed 1,500 cameras to the communities. Photos were evidence enough to corroborate their claims. Over the programme’s 12-year period until 2017, the department spent ₹84 lakh, and fishermen liberated 689 whale sharks until February 2018.

Tag the fish

The compensation doesn’t cover the full price of a new net nor does it offset the loss of working days. Despite the monetary cost they still have to bear, the coastal communities have turned saviours.

WTI’s focus wasn’t the fishing community alone. It also raised the creature’s profile with street plays, school competitions, and other public events. Seven cities adopted the species as their mascot, and the State celebrates its own Gujarat Whale Shark Day, on New Moon Day in the ninth month of the lunar calendar.

Since 2013, fishermen and researchers have recorded a few whale shark pups in Indian waters. Although the species doesn’t seem to have distinct feeding and birthing areas, the Indian coast may be a place for giving birth.

To understand more about the species, WTI started a research project. Tagging the fish with satellite transmitters would reveal where it went and when. So far, researchers have tagged eight sharks, says Sajan John, head of WTI’s West Coast Marine Conservation Project. However, the marine creature’s lifestyle took a toll on the devices as most failed. Two worked for a while.

One whale shark swam across the Arabian Sea and made for Somalia before heading south to the Maldives. “It travelled a distance of about 7,500 kilometres, and we tracked the shark for 306 days,” says John, “one of the longest tracked whale sharks in the Arabian Sea.” Another fish went towards Oman, travelling a distance of about 2,500 kilometres in 138 days before the transmitter went dead.

WTI has now started work in Kerala and Lakshadweep where fishermen continue to bring whale sharks to market. If it succeeds, many more pups stand a chance of reaching adulthood.

The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin

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