Fishermen in Kerala turn saviours of endangered gentle marine giants — whale sharks

One of the fishermen revealed that he successfully rescued and released 17 whale sharks, the largest fish species, along the Kerala coast.


Published Jan 20, 2024 | 4:37 PMUpdatedJan 20, 2024 | 4:41 PM

Whale Shark

Two days ago, local fishermen on the coastal shores of Kerala released a massive whale shark that had been entangled in their nets, lingering near the shore for over 13 hours.

“Everyone presumed the shark was lifeless, and forest department officials were prepared for a postmortem examination. However, I observed movement in its tail, and local fishermen assisted us in returning the shark to the sea,” said Ajith Shanghumugham, a local fisherman, recounting the incident that occurred on the Puthenthope coast in Thiruvananthapuram district.

Shanghumugham, along with fellow fisherman Ramesh, used their boat to successfully tow the shark back to deep waters, dedicating an extended period at sea to ensure its safe return and overall well-being.

Shanghumugham serves as the field officer of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), an NGO working for the conservation of wildlife in India, for the “Save the Whale Shark” campaign. He revealed that he has successfully rescued and released 17 whale sharks, the largest fish species, along the Kerala coast.

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Save the Whale Shark 

Shanghumugham attributes the successful rescue of the shark to the awareness generated through the “Save the Whale Shark” campaign, led by the Wildlife Trust of India, in collaboration with the Kerala Forest Department and Fisheries Department.

According to conservationists, whale sharks primarily feed on plankton and small species of fish, and pose no threat to human beings, earning them the name of gentle marine giants. They were often documented swimming freely with divers in the seas.

The campaign has effectively heightened awareness within the fishing community regarding the crucial need to conserve the endangered migratory shark species.

Despite facing financial setbacks when these large fish inadvertently get ensnared in their nets, fishermen are actively taking measures to cut open the nets and release the sharks back into the wild.

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Rescue operations 

Before the initiation of the campaign, local fishermen were hesitant to approach these massive sharks, recognised as the world’s largest non-cetacean animals.

“We hear stories of sharks attacking humans, and we never used to approach these animals. So, they died in our nets and were later buried on the beach by the forest department. Now we know how to rescue and release them,” said Siju, another local fisherman at Pallithura in Thiruvananthapuram.

Raju and his friends released another whale shark from Pallithura about a week ago after it became entangled in their fishing net.

WTI is compensating the fishermen who release the whale sharks back into the wild.

“We pay them ₹25,000 per shark released. We know it is only a fraction of what they lose by cutting the fishing nets. But still, the fishermen are happy to release the animal back into the wild,” Shanghumugham said.

According to local fishermen, whale sharks were not common along the coasts of Kerala, but recently, more sharks have been found near the Kerala coast.

“We incur a loss of about ₹1.3 lakh when a whale shark gets caught in our nets. We never received any compensation, and the forest department spent a significant amount of money cutting them into pieces and burying them on the shore. If the forest department also compensates us, along with WTI, then fishermen will be happier in conserving this magnificent species,” said Stephen, another local fisherman.

Health of marine ecosystem

For Ramesh, a local fishing boat owner, the loss is manageable considering the importance of this species for the health of the ocean.

“It is an essential species in maintaining the marine ecosystem, and we are more than happy to be part of this conservation effort. We do lose a lot of money when the sharks land in our nets, but now we are happy to release them after learning more about the importance of their conservation,” he said.

WTI launched this campaign in Kerala after a successful conservation effort on the coast of Gujarat.

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Wildlife Trust of India

Since its launch in 2001 in Gujarat, a total of 932 whale sharks have been successfully released back into the wild. Instances of whale shark hunting in Gujarat, primarily for its oil, have been completely halted.

With the support of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), WTI conducted a study on the South Coast of India, revealing that the incidental capture of whale sharks during fisheries operations posed the most significant threat to the species.

In 2017, WTI, in collaboration with the Kerala Forest Department and Fisheries Department, initiated the campaign in Kerala.

“The main success of this project can be attributed to the transformation of this community into protectors of whale sharks. Conservation efforts, such as continuous campaigning and active involvement of the fishers, have led to this positive change,” according to Sajan John, a marine biologist and the head of Marine Projects at WTI in India.

With the dedication of conservationists, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, in 2001, listed whale sharks under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, providing maximum legal protection to this species.

WTI, in collaboration with the Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department and Fisheries Department, continues to organize awareness classes for fishermen along the coasts of Kerala and Karnataka.

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