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The Fish That Wears The Night On Its Back

The Fish That Wears The Night On Its Back

Community conservation initiatives by fishermen off the coast of Saurashtra have helped the whale shark stage a slow but sure comeback, writes Pranav Capila.

The distinctive pattern of light-coloured spots and stripes on the whale shark's back is just one among its many unique traits. Photo: Venkat Charloo.

Dawn has silvered the cloak of night over most of India but here on the Saurashtra coast, the sky is still dark. As we ride down the Veraval-Kodinar road past the halogens of the Gujarat Heavy Chemicals factory, a pair of foxes sprints beside us before bounding off into the adjoining fields. In the eastern sky Jupiter and Venus linger in the sparkle of their last conjunction of the year.

They are gone, snuffed out by the unrisen sun by the time we reach the fishing hamlet of Vadodara Jala. Salimbhai – 50-year-old Salim Allahrakha Satnari – is waiting for us on the beach. We load our gear into the belly of his boat, a 30-footer (9.14 m.) with an outboard motor and fibreglass hull, put our shoulders to the gunwales and push it into the sea.

It is 6.30 a.m. and this is Salimbhai's ('bhai', for 'brother', is a standard suffix to male first names in Gujarat) second trip onto the water today. When he ventured out with his sons at 2 o'clock, the sea was black as ink and only the white crests of breaking waves saw him past the teeth of the rocks just offshore. Out in the deep the trawler lights twinkled, lining the horizon like a string of buoys marking the edge of the world.

You can set the same scene 500 years ago, fishermen rowing forth to lay their nets by the light of their lanterns. What might they have seen in the flicker of the flames and deemed to be monsters of the deep? Perhaps they saw a mighty fish bigger than their boats, its dark back scattered with stars, a dermal mirror to the sky above. Perhaps they called it by some beautiful name, some word that meant 'the fish that wears the night on its back'.

Perhaps, and that name was lost in time. For in the here and now, they call it 'barrel'.

Marine biologist Prem Jothi attaches a satellite tag to a whale shark's dorsal fin prior to freeing it. Photo Courtesy: WTI.

Blood and Brine

"When are you fellows going to stop using that name?" Prem asks Arjibhai in exasperation.We are in Sutrapada, a sprawling fishing village a few kilometres up the coast from Vadodara Jala. Prem Jothi, 29, is a marine biologist with the Whale Shark Conservation Project, run by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) in partnership with the Gujarat Forest Department and Tata Chemicals Ltd.

But while 'barrel' harks back to a particularly blood-soaked time in the whale shark's history on these shores, Prem is gentle in his objection to it – after all, Arji Soma, the man he is addressing, has been feted for his many successful whale shark rescues in previous years.

Even more interesting, the 52-year-old Arjibhai is a reformed whale shark hunter. The name 'barrel', he tells us, derives from the local hunting method: the fish was harpooned with large iron hooks tethered to empty barrels that sat on the water, preventing it from deep diving to escape.

"Traditionally we fishermen didn't have much to do with the whale shark", Arjibhai says. "We would kill the odd one for its liver oil, with which we waterproofed the hulls of our boats. We would remove the liver and leave the carcass in the sea. We did not eat the fish, nor sell it."

That changed in the late 1980s when the Southeast Asian demand for shark fins made itself known. Spurred by exporters, fishermen began dragging captured whale sharks to shore and butchering them. Over 1,800 whale sharks were reportedly killed between 1989 and 1998 (Pravin P: ‘Whale shark in the Indian coast’; Current Science, 2000), and a further 591 killed between 1999 and 2001 (Hanfee Fahmeeda: Giants of the Sea: India's Whale Shark Fishery; WWF-India, 2001).

Shores of Silence, environmental filmmaker Mike Pandey's heartbreaking documentary, shone a light on the massacres when it was released in October 2000. In May 2001, as a result of intense lobbying, the whale shark was placed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 — the first fish in India to be accorded this highest level of legal protection.

While the tide was turning against open slaughter, the demand for shark meat remained. And when the conservation project was launched in 2004, whale sharks were still dying in significant numbers on the Gujarat coast — even if most of these deaths were deemed 'accidental', the creatures having died of exhaustion after getting tangled in fishing nets.

After trawlers such as these parked at the Mangrol Port have had their fill, artisanal fishermen are often left to deal with a meagre catch. Photo:  Pranav Capila.

Rescue and Reward

Rhincodon typus. The world's largest extant fish species, growing to over 12 m. in length. Prefers balmy sea temperatures. Slow swimmer, filter feeder, planktivore. IUCN Red List status: Vulnerable; population decreasing due to overfishing and incidental capture.

Our understanding of whale shark behaviour is sketchy but here's what we do know: First, they aren't capable of replenishing their population stocks quickly. They reach sexual maturity only near the age of 30, which means they spend a significant part of their lives evading predators before they are ready to breed. Second, whale shark females bank the sperm from a single mating and use it to fertilise their eggs at varying intervals, possibly influenced by the availability of food. The dissection of a pregnant female near Taiwan in 1995 revealed 300 embryos in different stages of development, including 15 pups ready to be born. That's a lot of eggs in one basket.

"It shows how important the life of a single mature female can be," Prem says. "Also, since pups have been documented in these waters, we believe that this part of the Gujarat coast may be a birthing ground. Every whale shark death here, even if it is accidental, is a blow to the species."

We are on Salimbhai's boat again, under a harsh noonday sun, watching him and his boys pull their nets in. They had cast their hopes for a haul of pomfret this morning but the catch is meagre, as often happens after the trawlers have had their fill.

Prem and WTI field assistant Prakash Doriya, a former trawler pilot, make several such excursions in a month – hiring boats from Vadodara Jala or Sutrapada, or trawlers from the larger port towns of Veraval and Mangrol. They head into the sea in the mornings and let the fishermen go about their daily toil, asking only that the vessel stay within cell signal range of the mainland. Then, they wait for a whale shark rescue call.

On the face of it, the project's rescue component hinges on a simple quid pro quo: when fishermen find a whale shark entangled in their nets, they are required to cut it loose. In return, the Gujarat Forest Department pays them a fixed compensation per damaged net. (This is the first such compensation system for the whale shark in India; nearly Rs. 70 lakh has been paid to fishermen and over 500 rescues effected since 2005.)

The process was further streamlined in 2012 with a Self-Documentation Scheme (SDS), under which 1,500 waterproof cameras have been distributed among the fishermen. This allows them to perform and document rescues independently, without having to wait for WTI or Forest Department teams to arrive on the scene. It also reduces the time that the animal spends in the nets, improving its chances of survival.Of course, things aren't always cut and dried. A fisherman might have problems with the operation of his camera, which means he doesn't have a proper record of the rescue and can't claim compensation. "We sometimes have to referee such issues with community leaders and the Forest Department,” Prem admits."But even the compensation itself… it isn't as if it is always going to be adequate. And even if a fisherman can replace all his damaged nets there's no way to quantify the catch he may have lost. So these fishermen release whale sharks and yes, the compensation is very important to them, but to think they do it only for the money would be a mistake."

The Wildlife Trust of India's life-sized inflatable whale shark is a popular attraction at local community events. Photo Courtesy: WTI.

An Almost Religious Conversion

There is, for one thing, the Morari Bapu factor. Moraridas Prabhudas Hariyani, known as Morari Bapu, is a respected Gujarati kathakar (preacher) who has been associated with the project since its inception.

"He is like god to me," says Arjibhai, "and when he asked us to protect whale sharks that was the final word. Even if I lose Rs. 15-20,000 on a rescue I know it is the right thing to do."

"It has also become a matter of community pride,” says 25-year-old Farukhkha Bloch, the WTI field officer who handles community outreach for the project. "We take every opportunity to exalt fishermen who conduct successful rescues, in the regional media or at local or state-level functions."

So for instance on Whale Shark Day, held annually on Kartik Amavasya in Gujarat, celebrations are held across coastal villages and towns and fishermen with the most whale shark rescues are honoured before their peers.

The community component of the project runs the whole year round. Whale shark tableaus are created at local republic day celebrations. There is a Coastal School Participation Programme covering 50 schools, under which activities like marine wildlife quizzes and whale shark painting competitions are organised. Street plays are also performed at community functions to reinforce the conservation message and demonstrate the proper use of cameras, for example. Younger fishermen are now being involved in the execution of such events and in monitoring programmes like SDS, to create a sense of partnership.

"Fishermen now feel enough of an ownership to come forward with their own ideas for the project,” Farukhkha says. "We recently got a letter from a community in Porbandar, asking to use our life-sized inflatable whale shark in one of their religious functions. And that's as it should be: we want the people themselves to carry the message of conservation forward."

Voices from Above

Key to the fishermen's acceptance of whale shark conservation has been the support that their community leaders, known as 'Patels', have extended to the project.

It is with these leaders that WTI liaises for all project activities, and it is they who represent the fishermen's interests to the Forest Department, Coast Guard or other government agencies. Since they are elected annually from among the fishermen themselves, they are trusted to keep their community's best interests at heart. Here's what some of them had to say about whale shark conservation:

"I've been seeing whale sharks since I was a child — I would see one or two everyday when we were out on the water. My people traditionally did not hunt whale sharks, but things changed when I was about 13-years-old. I am happy to support the conservation project. As tigers are the jungle's pride, whales, whale sharks and dolphins are the pride of the sea. Moreover, they are protected by law. We fishermen operate in a sensitive area of the Indian coast and we must, as good citizens, follow the nation's rules with pride."
~ Tulshibhai Gohel, 37, Veraval (President, Akhil Gujarat Machchimar Mahamandal)

Veljibhai Masani
Photo: Pranav Capila.

"People think that fishermen only care about their catch, but our sense of pride matters more than money. And it's not just the whale shark; we understand that we have to be careful even about fish that we are allowed to catch. We don't want a day to come when we remember: there once used to be a fish called a pomfret!"

~ Veljibhai Masani, 51, Mangrol (Vice President, Akhil Gujarat Machchimar Mahamandal)

Jathabhai Bariya
Photo: Pranav Capila.

"Fishermen have always had an attitude of devotion towards whales, which we worship as 'dev machch' or 'divine fish'. Because of Morari Bapu we understand that the whale shark too is touched by divinity, and we must protect it."

~ Jathabhai Bariya, 65, Sutrapada (Former Head, Koli Samaj)

Jivabhai Bariya
Photo: Pranav Capila.

"We resisted (the rescue process) at first because we feared it would spoil our livelihood. But we came to realise that it is a good thing, and we do get compensation as well. Our fishermen have now become experts at whale shark rescues."

~ Jivabhai Bariya, 51, Sutrapada (Former Head, Koli Samaj)

A Fish by Any Other Name

In 2004, when the Whale Shark Conservation Project was launched, Morari Bapu spun a katha equating the whale shark to a married daughter who returns, per local custom, to her parental home to deliver her child. He also proposed that the whale shark be called 'Vhali', meaning 'dear one'.

The name didn't stick but the numbers tell their own story: from 40 killings on a single day in September 2001 to three accidental deaths in the last three years, the fishermen of Saurasthra have helmed a remarkable transformation.

‘Barrel’, once bound in shallows and miseries, has found a fuller tide off the coast of Gujarat. There is time enough for it to wear that better name.

Read more: The Deep Water Blues

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, December 2015.

 
 
 

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