Come October and the Andhra Pradesh coast, the second longest coastline in India with a length of 975 kilometres, will see the return of seasonal aggregation of the world’s largest fish, the whale sharks. This slow-moving, plankton-eating fish is a complete contrast to the brutal image of sharks and contrary to popular belief, they are no threat to humans. However, the whale sharks, also known as the gentle giants of the sea, have been the subject of rampant hunting and human brutality for years.
In Andhra Pradesh, the coasts of Visakhapatnam, Kakinada and Machilipatnam are among the major shark landing areas. With very limited information available on the congregation sites of the marine species in the coastal belt, several incidences of beaching of the whale sharks go unreported.
Listed as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list and protected under Schedule I of the Wild Life Protection Act, whale sharks have been hunted for years for the oil extracted from their livers to polish wooden boats and make them waterproof. Additionally, the demand for shark fins has risen in several countries leading to the rampant killing of this threatened species. In order to address this issue ahead of the seasonal aggregation season that begins in October and goes on till March, the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department plans to keep a monitoring system with an app. “Fishermen can capture pictures and upload them in the app. This will give us a fair picture about the range of the marine species. We can stop or limit the movement of marine vessels wherever there is a congregation of the species. This exercise will also help us gather data from this region on this endangered species and in the process help us sensitise the fishing community on the need to protect it,” says District Forest Officer, Visakhapatnam, Anant Shankar.
In the recent past, the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department along with the local fishermen had successfully rescued two whale sharks beached on the shores of Visakhapatnam in separate incidents. The success story of the rescue missions brought the limelight on the active involvement of the fishing community in safeguarding the whale sharks. To acknowledge the efforts and provide a positive push, the fishermen involved in the rescue operations were given rewards and compensation. The last scientific study on whale sharks in coastal Andhra Pradesh was carried out in 2015-16 when AP Forest Department collaborated with Wildlife Trust of India and EGREE Foundation to study the distribution, ecology and threats to whale sharks. The study was conducted in over 550 marine fishing villages involving 1.63 lakh fishermen families using ecological knowledge and indigenous technical knowledge.
Shanti Priya Pandey, additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Andhra Pradesh, highlighted some of the key findings of the study during a webinar conducted recently on the occasion of International Whale Shark Day (August 30). “Forty-eight percent reported to have sighted the whale shark in the Bay of Bengal during fishing, while 94% of the fishermen said they were aware of whale sharks along AP coast. During the survey, 11% of the fishermen said that they had seen whale shark pups ranging from 80 to 150 centimetres while fishing. However, the fishermen were unaware about the need to protect the species,” she said. The AP Forest Department is now focusing on short term strategies that include conducting awareness camps, giving training to stakeholders at regular intervals, enforcement for better protection and frequent convergence meetings with stakeholders to address challenges. The long-term strategies include coordinating with scientific organisations to map migratory routes of whale sharks using satellite tagging, research on ecology and behavioural studies with scientific partners.
In Gujarat, a sustained campaign initiated by Wildlife Trust of India in 2002 has been a success with over 800 sharks released by fishermen so far. Addressing a webinar earlier on whale sharks, Vivek Menon of Wildlife Trust of India said, “The Gujarat Forest Department came up early in the game with the compensation mechanism for fishermen who cut the nets to save the whale sharks (caught accidentally during fishing). That was a revolutionary technique where the fishermen saved the whale shark’s life by cutting nets and did not face a pecuniary loss.” During the launch of the campaign to save whale sharks in Gujarat in the early 2000s, a story had caught the imagination of the fishermen wherein the whale shark visiting the shores of Gujarat was compared to a daughter visiting her parents and the need to create an environment conducive for it to breed. This paved the way for a successful campaign wherein the fishermen started releasing the fish during accidental encounters.
Long road ahead
In Andhra Pradesh, the two successful rescue operations earlier this year led by the fishermen community in association with the AP Forest Department may have set the platform for the making of another success story of saving the gentle giants of the ocean. A poster of the whale shark being rescued by the fishermen team along with the forest department staff in Visakhapatnam was released on the occasion of International Whale Shark Day. The next step would be to streamline a compensation mechanism for fisherfolk for each net destroyed if they set the shark free. “Community involvement in conservation efforts holds the key. The rescue missions were a successful example of the same. A lot needs to be done to save the whale sharks and for that we are trying to collaborate with other organisations and departments working in this area. The first step towards the conservation effort is to roll out a monitoring system which we seek to achieve through the app,” says Anant.