Whale shark caught off Charna Island brought to city harbour

KARACHI, Feb 1: Marine experts have raised concerns over the death of a juvenile whale shark accidentally caught off Charna Island on Thursday afternoon and then brought to the Karachi Fish Harbour on Friday morning.

According to initial estimates, the 14-foot-long whale shark weighs between three and four tonnes. Known to be a slow-moving plankton-eating shark, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest living fish species and is highly docile. It has been listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is included in ‘Appendix 2’ of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

It was caught by a 14-member crew of fishing boat Safina Imraj. Talking to Dawn, the boat’s captain, Jumman, said the fish was caught on Thursday afternoon and it died after some time. Later, his crew towed it to the harbour. He said that it was the first time in 15 years of fishing that he had caught a whale shark.

“It was the 14th day of our trip and we were sailing in waters between Charna Island and Sonmiani,” said Jumman. “We couldn’t catch anything else except the Andhi Mungar (whale shark’s local name) so we hope to earn something out of it to support our families. Winters are tough since the catch decreases significantly.”

However, said Jumman, the fish was not the catch of their choice since it had little commercial value. “Its meat is of poor quality but the liver is used to extract oil for polishing boats,” he said.

Speaking to Dawn, marine fisheries department director-general Shaukat Hussain said that the whale shark appeared to be a day old. He said the authorities planned to send it abroad for further investigation.

“The fish would be kept till Monday after which it would be dissected,” he said. “Letters are being written to all relevant organisations, including the National Institute of Oceanography, Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Karachi University’s Centre for Excellence for Marine Biology, to visit the harbour and extend their expertise.”

Referring to the 14-tonne whale shark caught last year in February, Mr Hussain said that samples tested in Canada had shown that the whale shark was about 50 years old and assessment had proved that it died a natural death.

“The average lifespan of a whale shark is 52 years,” he said. “No signs of contamination were detected in samples taken from it.”

Answering a question regarding educating fishermen on endangered species such as whale shark, Mr Hussain said it was part of the department’s training programme. “Besides, fishermen are reluctant to catch it themselves since the fish has no commercial value,” he said. “It was a rare accident.”

Meanwhile, the Karachi Fish Harbour Authority (KFHA) director (operations) Anis Ahmed Soomro, who handled the episode at the harbour, termed the incident unfortunate. “Whale sharks are giant but innocent fishes,” he said. “They are people-friendly. The fishermen consider catching it as inauspicious and a bad omen at the beginning of the day.”

A frequent by-catch

However, Mohammad Moazzam Khan, who works as a technical advisor on marine fisheries with the WWF, was of the opinion that whale sharks were often caught off Karachi coast as a by-catch.

“The local fishermen catch it every other month,” he said. “Though the catching whale sharks is not profitable, they do have huge ecological significance.”

He gave the example of India where catching whale sharks had been banned for many years and now its mortality was reduced to zero. “We have also asked the government to ban catching of whale sharks in the Sindh Wildlife Act which is currently being prepared,” he said. “Community awareness is of utmost importance in wildlife conservation.”

Talking about an incident which occurred last month, Mr Khan said a whale fish had gotten entangled in a net in the Gunz area of Balochistan but the fishermen had released the fish back into the water. “The fishermen apparently knew the ecological value of endangered species and didn’t care if they had to cut their own net to release the fish,” he said. “The same spirit is needed in Karachi’s fishermen.”

About 64 types of sharks, including dangerous predator fish except the most lethal great white shark, have so far been reported in Pakistan waters. Studies and observations have shown that the Arabian Sea serves as a feeding, resting and breeding ground for whale sharks. The largest specimen so far recorded in the world was caught, off Baba Island, on Nov 11, 1947. According to experts, the fish was 12.65 metres (41.5 feet) long, weighed more than 21.5 tonnes and had a girth of seven metres.

The distinct whale shark is the only member of its genus Rhincodon and is from the family of Rhincodontidae. Unlike other fish, sharks have no bones and their skeletons are of cartilage. This species is called a whale shark because of its size.

Source: Dawn. Date: Feb 01, 2013