Shark Week 2018

Saving Whale Sharks and Other Ocean Giants in Bangladesh

Photo: Emily Darling/WCS

By G. M. Masum Billah

Mohammad Malek Bapary, captain of the fishing boat Al Satter, was watching over his crew hauling in the night’s catch. They had pulled up nearly two thirds of the four-kilometer long gillnet targeting large finfish. The sea was calm, and things were moving along smoothly, but Captain Bapary and his crew were in for a surprise.

As they pulled hard on the net they discovered an unusually large fish thrashing alongside their boat. It took them several minutes to get a clear view of the creature that was nearly as long as their boat. It was a ‘timi hangor,’ or whale shark, the world’s largest fish and a true ocean giant.

WCS Bangladesh staff provides technical training and mentoring for members of our Citizen Science Fishermen Safety Network. Photos: WCS Bangladesh.

What Captain Bapary and his crew did next was extraordinary. While many of his fellow captains would have killed the shark and brought it to shore to sell its fins and meat, as a member of WCS Citizen Science Fishermen Safety Network he knew he had an obligation to release the shark alive.

“Ocean giants, including dolphins, whales, sharks, rays and marine turtles, are critical for maintaining a healthy balance in our ocean.”

However, releasing the huge animal from his gillnet was not an easy task. Two of his crew were slightly injured and they had to cut a big hole in their net. And yet the captain saved this threatened Ocean Giant, knowing it was his duty as a guardian of the sea.

Captain Bapary and his crew deserve a lot of credit for sacrificing the money they would have earned for the catch and cutting their net to save the whale shark. However, they are not the only ones.

In August 2017, Captain Younus Kholifa, of the WCS Bangladesh Citizen Science Fishermen Safety Network, took this video of a pantropical spotted dolphin that he and his crew rescued from their net. Courtesy WCS Bangladesh.

In August 2017, Captain Younus Kholifa, another member of the WCS Bangladesh Citizen Science Fishermen Safety Network, provided us with a dramatic video (above) of a pantropical spotted dolphin that he and his crew rescued from their net.

Captain Kholifa knew from training given by WCS that dolphins are air-breathing mammals and that it is critical to rescue them as quickly as possible if they become entangled. Otherwise they will drown. Gillnet fishermen who are members of the WCS network also routinely provide us with photographs of threatened olive ridley and hawksbill turtles that are found alive and released from their nets.

Ocean giants, including dolphins, whales, sharks, rays and marine turtles, are critical for maintaining a healthy balance in our ocean. As fishermen in the Bay of Bengal are becoming more aware of the importance of ocean giants, they are becoming ocean guardians.

Members of the WCS Citizen Science Fishermen Safety Network record geo-referenced data on their fishing effort, catches, and bycatches. They also collect data from marine megafauna found already dead in their nets such as this bottlenose dolphin (left) and photo document live releases such as this hawksbill turtle (right). Photos: WCS Bangladesh.

The WCS Bangladesh Program is working with fishermen and the Government of Bangladesh to find effective solutions for sustainable marine fisheries management by balancing the needs of a growing human population with the needs of ocean giants.

Captain Bapary and Captain Kholifa, along with more than 20 other fishing vessel captains who are members of the WCS Citizen Science Fishermen Safety Network, are beacons of hope for these iconic species in Bangladesh.

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G. M. Masum Billah is Marine Megafauna Program Coordinator for the Bangladesh Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).