As the year comes to an end, India took another small step towards learning more about the whale shark – the world’s biggest fish. An individual was satellite-tagged on Friday to learn more about the movement and preferences of the world’s biggest fish that frequents the western coast.
The tagging, second ever in the country, was done on the morning of December 27 by the Whale Shark Conservation Project team members with the help of the fishing community in Sutrapada, Gujarat and Gujarat Forest Department.
Whale sharks, once brutally hunted in Gujarat became the first fish to be listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
A joint initiative of the Gujarat Forest Department and International Fund for Animal Welfare – Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI), supported by Tata Chemicals Limited, the Project works to gather more information on the species to help develop effective conservation strategies.
“This is a significant milestone for whale shark conservation in India,” said BC Choudhury, Project Advisor, WTI. “In the coming weeks, we will be tagging more fish, applying the modified methodology to ensure minimal stress on the fish.”
The individual tagged was a female, around 18 feet long, informed WTI biologist Prem Jothi, who implanted the tag. It was caught in fishing net, and was released post-tagging. This is the second ever for the country.
Whale sharks were once brutally hunted in Gujarat for its liver oil used to water proof boats. In 2001, the whale shark became the first fish to be listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Following the hugely successful Whale Shark Campaign launched by the Forest Department, IFAW-WTI and TCL, in 2004, the fishing community of Gujarat began releasing whale sharks accidentally caught in their nets. Till date, release of around 400 whale sharks has been recorded.
Unlike on land, tagging marine animals presents numerous challenges. As tagging free ranging fish is a highly resource-intensive operation, the team had opted for a more feasible option of tagging individuals accidentally caught on nets before release. The team had first tagged a whale shark in 2011. The fish was followed for 40 odd days, tracking its movement along Maharashtra and Gujarat coasts.
“We had sidelined the plan to tag the rescued whale sharks for a while to figure out a way to reduce time taken in the operation to minimise stress on the fish or to tag free-ranging individuals,” said Choudhury. “The latter however is like searching a needle in a haystack, or literally a ‘drop in the ocean’. As of now, we are keeping both options open.”
This fishing season, the team decided to stay put in a trawler on the sea as the fishermen ventured out to evaluate their catch every morning. Another team kept in touch with the fishing community on land, and helped coordinate quick information transfer.
“We reached the site where the fish was caught quickly and completed the entire operation in 30 minutes,” said Prem Jothi, who was accompanied by other WTI team members including marine biologist Subburaman, sociologist Farukhkha, assistant Prakash Doriya, with coordination support from the project lead S Goutham.
The fish was released following tagging, and was healthy when freed, he added. “As the fish surfaces, the tag will emit signals that will give us its location and the water conditions there. Other inferences will be made based on this.”