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Indian Fishermen to be part of major research on whale shark

AHMEDABAD: An extensive research on the endangered whale shark found off the Saurashtra coast — arguably the first of its kind in the country — involving the local fishing community will be launched shortly.

The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) in collaboration with the state Forests and Environment Department and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) of Goa will conduct the five-year research to study whale shark habitat, map their migration, various aspects of their life cycles and genetic patterns.

With the commitment shown by the local fishing community for whale shark conservation in the coastal region of Saurasthra, a group of fishermen will be specially trained for project. The research, which also includes the study of the coral reef along the Gujarat coastline, is being funded by the Jamnagar-based Tata Chemicals Limited.

Marine biodiversity expert from NIO, M Wafar, who is part of the core team of scientists for the project, said, “We will be training the local fishermen to collect samples from underneath the sea. They will also be taught how to click photographs of whale sharks using underwater cameras.

“The pictures will be used to create photo identification of the whales visiting the coast of Gujarat. Since the fishermen spent most of the time in the sea, it will be easy to get visuals of the fish if we train them in photography,” Wafar said.

He said the research will be carried out phases over five years.

“In the first year, we will be studying the hydrography and try to get answers to questions such as when do the whale sharks come to Gujarat coasts? Why do they come here? and what is so unique about the coastline near Saurashtra region where they have been sighted,” he said.

“In the second year, we will try and enumerate the population of these large creatures. We will also be studying the dotted patterns that appear on the surface of their body. They are like finger prints, unique in each fish,” Wafar said.

“Then in the third and fourth year, we will be tracking them using Global Positioning System (GPS) and satellite tags. Since they come under the Schedule I category, specific clearance from the government is required to conduct experiments on these creatures,” he said.

Equipment like cameras for underwater photography, satellite tags and other instruments used for this study will have to be imported, he said.

Besides these, genetics, behaviour pattern of the whale sharks, their tendency to mix with other shark species will also be studied, he said.

A Scientific Advisory Committee comprising 10 experts from India and abroad will be providing necessary inputs for the research project. The first meeting of the committee is likely to be held next week.

WTI coordinator for Gujarat, Diresh Joshi, said the research on corals will include study of coral diversity, mapping, habitat, threats and experiments for coral transplanting. The research inputs on coral will feed scientific information to the proposed interpretation centre at Dwarka or Mithapura in Jamnagar, Joshi said.

WTI has been running a “Save Whale Shark” campaign since 2004 to educate and change perceptions about the fish among people in the coastal region. According to an estimate, over 500 whale sharks were killed along the Gujarat coast during 2000-01, WTI Executive Director Vivek Menon said.

The campaign, with support of religious leader Morari Bapu and other stakeholders including the fishing community and coast guards has been a success and hardly any of the endangered species have been killed in the past few years by fishermen, he said.

The number of whale sharks rescued and released as a result of this campaign has now exceeded 80, Memon said.