In December 2013, as the year came to an end, India took another small step towards learning more about the whale shark – the world’s biggest fish. An individual was satellite-tagged to learn more about the movement and preferences of the world’s biggest fish that frequents the country’s western coast. The tagging, second ever in India, was done on the morning of December 27th by the Whale Shark Conservation Project team members with the help of the fishing community in Sutrapada, Gujarat and Gujarat Forest Department. The fishermen reporting the entangled whale shark had used the camera given to them for self-documentation to take pictures of the entire rescue operation.
The individual tagged was a female, around 18 feet long who had been caught in a fishing net. WTI biologist Prem Jothi implanted the tag and the entire operation was completed by the 5-member team in 30 minutes. This is the second ever for the country. The fish was released following tagging, and was healthy when freed. As the fish surfaces, the tag will emit signals that will track its location and the water conditions there. Other inferences will be made based on this data.
This initiative will help gather more information on the species to help develop effective conservation strategies. Whale sharks were once brutally hunted in Gujarat for its liver oil used to water proof boats. In 2001, the whale shark became the first fish to be listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Following the hugely successful Whale Shark Campaign in 2004, the fishing community of Gujarat began releasing whale sharks accidentally caught in their nets. Till date, release of around 400 whale sharks has been recorded.
Unlike on land, tagging marine animals presents numerous challenges. As tagging free ranging fish is a highly resource-intensive operation, the team had opted for a more feasible option of tagging individuals accidentally caught on nets before release. The team had first tagged a whale shark in 2011 and the fish was followed for about 40 days, tracking its movement along Maharashtra and Gujarat coasts. This fishing season, the Marine team decided to stay put in a trawler on the sea as the fishermen ventured out to evaluate their catch every morning. Another team kept in touch with the fishing community on land, and helped coordinate quick information transfer.
Earlier, the plan to tag rescued whale sharks had been sidelined for a while to figure out a way to reduce time taken in the operation to minimise stress on the fish. The other option was to tag free-ranging individuals. But this was like searching a needle in a haystack, or literally a ‘drop in the ocean’; and as of now, both options are being kept open.
In March this year, the project team received first cogent evidence of whale shark pups being found along the Gujarat coast. A young pup was caught in the net of a local fisherman – Mohan Beem Solanki – in Sutrapada. Following years-long tradition imprinted in the fishing community of Gujarat through the internationally-acclaimed Whale Shark Campaign, Solanki set the whale shark free.When he called in the incident, Solanki was unaware of the flutter created by this serendipitous discovery. There were of course anecdotal reports about pups being found in Gujarat – after all Shri Morari Bapu ji had used this information in his discourses as part of the Whale Shark Campaign. But this was cold hard evidence! Thus began our search for more information on whale shark pups.
Since mid-April, I have visited fishing hamlets in Veraval, Sutrapada and Dhamlej, talking to over 300 local households there about whale sharks, about the campaign, and how they feel about seeing or rescuing the world’s biggest fish. When I met Solanki, he told me about the tiny pup he had released from his net, and we collected and verified the rare visuals of the baby whale shark. The story soon made waves in the media as this little discovery indicated that these amazing fish were pupping off India's west coast.
Even as we went about asking the fishing communities whether they had seen or – hopefully – photographed a whale shark pup with the cameras we had provided them to facilitate self-documentation during rescues, the fishermen themselves started approaching us with information on the pups. Within a month, we had reports of four pups spotted off Gujarat’s coast. This was a considerable find for the project. All the pups caught seemed to be between 1 and 3 months old – the size of an arm – indicating that the fish may be breeding, and definitely pupping in Indian waters. For me, it has been a humbling experience, learning about the whale shark and the lives of the fishermen who have turned saviors of this fish. Our biologists are currently stranded on land as the monsoon seas are out of bounds for reasons of safety. We, therefore, went about exploring and extracting information from the only available virtual library on fish – the fishing communities. There is always a lot to learn and the more we learn, the better we can contribute to save ‘Vhali’ - the Dear One of Gujarat.
Since 2004, fishermen off the coast of Gujarat have been cutting through their nets to release accidentally trapped whale sharks. To avail relief offered by the forest department for loss of their fishing nets, the rescue has to be documented. This has sometimes resulted in a long wait as the rescue team arrives at the spot. The cameras handed out to fishermen, with your support, to enable self documentation has reduced this waiting time and therefore stress to the fish considerably. Since then, 61 whale shark releases have been photographed by the fishermen themselves using these cameras.
In mid April, a momentous release occurred… a newborn whale shark pup, less than a metre long, was found entangled in a fishing net 20 km off the coast of Sutrapada. The boat crew immediately set the pup free. Fisherman Mohan Beem Solanki - one of the recipients of the camera, sent us a few pictures of the young whale shark.
This release is especially good news because it indicates that the world’s largest fish may be breeding or pupping in the waters off coastal Gujarat. As the fishing community continues active protection of whale sharks, we continue our efforts to learn more about the fish to improve its conservation and welfare prospects, with your support.
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