Posted on 31 August 2020
Karachi, 31 August: ‘Since the start of WWF-Pakistan’s observer programme in 2012, a total of 110 whale sharks have been safely released by trained fishermen. This was mainly achieved through capacity building and awareness initiative and is a big success in conservation of marine species’. This was stated by speakers on the occasion of the World Whale Shark Day observed digitally. The event was attended by more than 100 students from University of Karachi, Lasbela University and members of the WWF Network. They said that the whale shark fishing is effectively under control as no case of whale shark mortality has been reported by fishers in 2019 or 2020.
The whale shark is classified as endangered according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, whereas it is included in Appendix-II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and is proposed to be included in Appendix-I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). It is also covered under other international instruments including the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) of which Pakistan is a member.
Speaking during the online session, Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Advisor Fisheries, WWF-Pakistan said that a healthy population of whale sharks is reported from Pakistani waters. However, it faces multiple threats such as frequent entanglement in fishing gears (particularly gillnets), habitat degradation and marine pollution. He stated that these species are commonly found all along the coast of Pakistan, however, the area between Ras Malan and Churna Island and the offshore Indus Delta (between Khajar and off Ghora Bari) is their hotspot. He also said that Churna Island, which is being considered as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) by the government of Balochistan, is an important basking, feeding and breeding area for this species. Two neonate whale sharks were reported from Balochistan coast in 2008, confirming the breeding of whale sharks in the area. He stressed that the government must devise a policy to reduce gillnet fisheries in Pakistan. ‘Many countries, including Sri Lanka, have converted a large number of gillnets boats to longlining, which is considered comparatively safer gear against threatened species,’ he added.
Commenting on the day, Dr Andy Cornish, Leader of WWF’s Global Shark and Ray Conservation programme, said that whale sharks are gentle giants, and amongst the best known of all the 500 plus species of sharks, with their massive size, huge mouths and distinctive white spots. Despite being protected in many countries and under regional and global conventions, their populations continue to decline. Whale sharks are ocean nomads, wandering huge distances across ocean basins in search of food and mates, which threaten their survival when they inadvertently cross busy shipping lanes, or blunder into fishing nets, which can entangle and kill them. He also said that WWF is determined to reduce the threats to whale sharks through research to improve our knowledge on their movements, reduce deaths from entanglement, and to protect the areas where they gather together. The collaboration between fisherman and WWF in Pakistan to safely release whale sharks unintentionally caught in gillnets have saved countless whale sharks, and a fantastic example for other countries to follow.
Sharing her thoughts, Hamera Aisha, Manager Marine Programme, WWF-Pakistan lauded the role of the Sindh and Balochistan Fisheries Departments, who proactively legislated for protection of whale sharks in 2016. She said that this established a basis for taking action against fishermen who deliberately catch whale shark or try to market it. She pointed out that earlier in 2012 and 2013 when two whale sharks were deliberately killed by fishermen, the incidences received extensive media coverage and developed the interest of other fishermen to protect this species. However, now with legislation in place whale shark fishing has stopped altogether in both provinces.
Historically, there was an important whale shark fishery in Pakistan but since the 1970s the fishery for whale sharks using harpoons was stopped. Whale sharks are neither consumed in Pakistan locally nor is their meat exported. However, fishermen extract oil from its liver to smear the hull of fishing boats to keep them smooth. The meat is used for conversion into poultry meal. When a whale shark becomes entangled in a net, it struggles to break free and causes serious damage to expensive fishing nets. Fishermen, therefore, killed these gentle giants in order to save their nets. However, because of efforts by WWF-Pakistan, which initiated a campaign for awareness among fishermen, whale sharks are now safely released back into waters.