Catching a Whale Shark
For a fisherman who is out for a day in the Arabian Sean, a lot rides on his luck. Every day he prays for a heavy catch and measures his daily success by the number of fish that ends up in his net. A good catch also constitutes of many fish which weighs more.
In February 2012, Haji Qasim, one such fisherman, thought his prayers were heard. Miraculously, his net caught a heavy catch. But instead of many sellable fish, as he had hoped, it was one big giant fish — a whale shark, the longest fish of the sea. The whale shark was kept in the Fisherman Cooperative Society (FCS) hall for public viewing and this is how I had a chance to see this rare fish species for the first time in my life.
I had accompanied Badar Usmani, Marine Biologist, Marine Fisheries Department to see the whale shark which I later found was 36 foot long and over 7,000 kg . I moved forward to look at the teeth of this biggest shark, the jaw that earned this “beast” a reputation of an aggressive predator of the sea. However, the small rudimentary teeth, in the hardly 4 feet long jaw of this largest shark, was a surprise.
Whale sharks, if caught in the catch, provide lucrative business. One fin can fetch a whooping US$57,000 at some places. However in India, the fishermen settle on as low as US$4,000 per shark. Similarly, Taiwanese fishermen were selling it for as low as US$0.10 per kilogram. China sold eight-meter whale shark for only US$3,000 . While, this almost 11 m long whale shark was sold at US$1,917. Pakistani fishermen extract oil from its liver for smearing hull of the fishing boats to keep it smooth and prevent wood decay. The meat is used as food to trash fisheries.
Since the 1970s, harpoon fishing of whale sharks has stopped. Traditional fishing nets are now converted into nylon made fishing gears which has increased pressure on sharks of taxa Elasmobrachii, which needs a greater level of protection and conservation efforts. Globally proximity to large boats, change in fishing techniques, and consequently, propellers have led to a high mortality rate of such gentle giant aquatic organisms. Currently, whale sharks are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List data, conservationists and environmental scientists have been clamoring for conservation efforts.
WWF-Pakistan started an observer programme in 2012 on tuna gillnet vessel and trained fishermen on saving entangled non-target marine animals such as these sharks. This has produced positive results and so far fishermen have successfully released 12 whale sharks (including other releases). Fishermen also observed a juvenile whale shark estimated to be 14 feet long in Ras Malan, Balochistan in October 2014, which swam around the fishing boats for a while before disappearing in the sea.
Shoaib Abdul Razzaque is Conservation Officer, Marine Programme, WWF-Paksitan.