Gujarat's beloved sea daughters

VIRENDRA PANDIT | Updated on February 10, 2011

Freeing the catch: Fishermen work at untangling the fishing nets.

Save ?whali?: A rescue operation to free a trapped whale shark off the Mangrol coast in Gujarat.

Fishermen, who once hunted whale sharks to the brink of extinction, have now turned protectors.

Until 2003, whale sharks, among the world's largest fish, which reportedly swim nearly 22,400 km from Australia to arrive at coastal Gujarat every winter, were hunted by local fishermen for their export-quality meat as well as liver oil, which is used to waterproof fishing boats.

The extensive fishing of these marine giants, which presumably come seeking temperatures of 21-25 degrees Celsius and phytoplanktons, nearly rendered them extinct in this part of the world. Until help arrived in the form of a sermon from a spiritual guru, Morari Bapu.

He asked the fishermen a simple question: ?Do you kill your pregnant daughter who has come to give birth at her parents' house?? The resounding ?no? from the fishermen led to his next question: ?Then why do you kill whale sharks, which too are like your visiting daughters.? It instantly struck a chord in the fishing community, which voluntarily embarked on a conservation project for the whale sharks. They also took to heart the spiritual guru's exhortation to consider the Sorath region of Saurashtra as the ?parental home' of the whale sharks and a matter of ?Gujarat Gaurav? (Pride of Gujarat).

The fishing community has so far managed to rescue 240 whale sharks off the Gujarat coast, particularly in Junagarh district. Their exemplary effort, which entails sacrificing their economic gain in the larger interest of protecting the marine environment, has drawn support from Tata Chemicals (TCL), the Indian Coast Guard and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) in the form of financial and technical assistance.

Rahul Kaul, Senior Director of WTI, describes the whale shark conservation project as among the biggest such campaigns in the world to rescue and release wildlife. Today, the coastal fishing town of Mangrol, where the project first took shape in January 2004, has adopted the whale shark as its mascot.

Whenever the fishermen notice a whale shark trapped in their nets deep in the sea, they alert the rescue teams through a control room set up at Mangrol. The rescue teams arrive and cut the fishing net to set the whale shark free. The Forest Department then compensates for the loss of the fishing net by paying up to Rs 25,000.

The whale shark rescue team is led by Manoj Matwal, 25, who holds a Masters degree in Wildlife Sciences from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Hailing from Pithoragarh (Uttarakhand), this young man with an aptitude for mountaineering found himself turning, instead, into a professional diver at Goa.

Currently on a three-year assignment from WTI for the whale shark project, his tasks include tagging the rescued fish to monitor their movement and migration, and collecting photographic information and genetic samples.

Whale sharks measure up to 45 metres in length and weigh nearly 12 tonnes, a tenth of which constitutes the liver alone! These ?gentle giants', which were christened ?whale sharks? in 1828 due to their massive size and weight, can live up to 100 years.

The 80,000 local fishermen, mainly belonging to the Kharwa Samaj community, now refer to the whale sharks as whali (which means ?loved one' in Gujarati) and identify themselves as ?Whali na mitro' (friends of whali) and ?Whali na veera' (protectors of Whali).

Incidentally, the boy-girl birth ratio in Gujarat has improved from 834:1,000 to 905:1,000 during the past decade. The State's ?Save the Girl Child' campaign has met with success, as has its ?Save the Whale Shark' campaign.

In fact, the whale shark conservation campaign has turned into an annual festival, called the Whale Shark Day. This year it was celebrated on January 25, where fishermen, forest officials, schoolchildren, NGOs, local artistes and street players among others together pledged to conserve not only the whale shark but also the coral reef at Mithapur (where TCL has a plant) on the Gujarat coast.

Shores of solicitude

On May 28, 2001, sparked off by Mike Pandey?s award-winning documentary Shores of Silence that captured the massacre of whale sharks on the Indian coast, hunting of whale shark was banned in India after it was listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Violation of the ban will attract 3-7 years? imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,000, according to the Act.

In 2009, Tata Chemicals (TCL) and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) signed an MoU for a whale shark conservation project to create awareness and undertake research on the endangered species. The MoU also undertook a study to explore whale shark tourism opportunities in the region.

Prior to this, few people other than the fishermen who hunted them knew of the presence of whale sharks in Gujarat waters.

Rishi Pathania, TCL?s Manager, Community Development, said the company spends about Rs 5 crore annually on conservation and rural development projects as part of its CSR activity. The whale shark conservation project and the Mithapur Coral Reef Securement Project are among the largest corporate-supported conservation initiatives in India.

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Published on February 10, 2011
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