When a dead whale shark was dragged to Karachi harbour last Friday morning, a number of people leapt onto the creatures back and smiled as they posed for photos. The conservationists, however, were far from grinning.
According to Muhammad Moazzam Khan, a technical adviser at the World Wildlife Fund - Pakistan (WWF-P), around 36 whale sharks have been found dead in the waters off the country’s coast over the past seven years. The lion’s share of whale sharks which have been killed during fishing expeditions were juveniles.
His organisation has been carefully studying the population of the animals found in the country. The waters off Pakistan’s coast are an important breeding ground for the species, which has been listed as vulnerable on WWF’s website and is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) ‘Red List’ of threatened species.
The creatures - which happen to be the largest living fish - are drawn to the country’s coast because of the rich reserve of plankton in the area. The water also has large schools of anchovies, sardines and shrimp, which are also on the whale shark’s diet. The creatures are found around Astola Island, behind Churna Island, the shallow waters of Gwadar and off the Indus River Delta’s creeks.
Catching the animals and selling them off can be quite a profitable venture. “Whale sharks are highly valued on international markets. Demand for their meat, fins and oil remains a threat to the species, particularly by unregulated fisheries,” states WWF’s global website. When the 40-foot whale shark was found in the shallow waters of Gadani last February, officials from the Karachi Fish Harbour Authority had said that it could have easily fetched Rs1.5 million in the international market.
But there has been some respite for the species. In 1976, Pakistan became a signatory to the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). Under the agreement the export of products from whale sharks is inhibited. Within the country, however, the story is much different - there is no legislation to protect the animal. Pakistani fishermen say that they don’t like catching the animal because its giant size damages their nets and is considered a bad omen. But whale sharks can still get caught inadvertently in fishing nets lowered into the water, as was the case with the whale shark dragged to the Karachi harbour last Friday. According to IUCN, Pakistan is still a danger zone for these animals because of unregulated fishing activities.
India seems to be faring much better than Pakistan at protecting the animal. WWF-P’s director, Rab Nawaz said that whale sharks were categorised as a protected species in 2001, giving them the same status as Indian Rhinoceros and Bengal Tiger. Since then, more than 70 whale sharks entangled in Indian fishermen’s nets have been successfully set free, he said. Even in Taiwan, another hotspot for whale shark hunting - according to the IUCN’s website - a quota has been placed on how many of the animals can be caught.
Luckily, whale sharks have found some allies. WWF-Pakistan has planned to create awareness among fishermen, coastal communities and other stakeholders for the protection of whale sharks. Nawaz said that the organisation also plans to develop a database to keep track of all the marine animals, including whale sharks, which die inadvertently from fishing. This will be done by deploying survey boats which will keep an eye on fishing activities. The organisation is also pushing the Sindh and Balochistan governments to include whale sharks in schedule-I of their respective wildlife laws so that the species can be protected and violators punished.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2013.