KARACHI, Aug 30: Whale shark, a highly docile marine species enjoying a protected status in many countries, is mercilessly killed in Pakistan, often after becoming entangled in long fishing nets that are in extensive use in the country despite international restrictions, a seminar held to mark International Day of Whale Sharks was told on Friday.
It was said that over the past five years, there had been at least 27 reported killings of whale sharks along the country’s coast. The government should ban its fishing and punish those found involved in its killing, said speakers at the seminar, which was organised by Karachi University Institute of Marine Sciences in collaboration with the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan, at the varsity’s arts auditorium.
Starting off with a brief introduction of the species, director of the institute Dr Rashida Qari said that whale shark was the largest fish (it could reach up to the length of 20 meters and could weigh up to 34 tonnes) and it was because of their enormous size that they were referred to as whales, though they are shark.
“Scientific work on whale sharks in Pakistan is far too limited and there is a need to explore this area,” she said.
Giving more information about the fish habitat during a presentation on interaction of whale sharks with fishing operations in Pakistan, Mohammad Shoaib Kiani, a lecturer at the institute, said that the species was the only member of its family (Rhincodontidae) and lived in both shallow and deep coastal waters.
“As a highly migratory species, whale sharks are distributed worldwide in warm and temperate seas. The status of the species was declared ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2000 on account of past records of declining catches. The species enjoys protected status by international agreements on migratory species,” he said.
The species, he pointed out, were filter feeders that meant they ate tiny organisms such as small planktons, crustaceans, fish and sometimes cephalopods. They could filter up to 6,000 litres of water in an hour using their gill rakers.
“Whale sharks unlike other two-filter feeding sharks don’t require swimming constantly to filter food from water. Instead, they can hold their body in water and suck huge quantities of water while maintaining their position for an extended period. The species, according to Mr Kiani, were sensitive to exploitation due to low reproductive rates, long gestation periods, slow growth and movement and late maturity.
“Use of gillnets and trawl nets, drastic increase in fishing fleet and unregulated fishing operations are major threats to whale sharks in Pakistani waters,” he said.
He informed the audience that whale sharks of all age classes, including neonates were reported from Pakistani waters that suggested that the country’s coast served as breeding and nursery areas of the fish.
WWF-P technical adviser on marine fisheries Mohammad Moazzam Khan said that Pakistan was an important whale area of the world where the smallest and the largest specimen of the species had been found.
“Eco-tourism based on whale shark watching is a big industry abroad. But, we deliberately kill the innocent marine giant just for its liver that is later processed for extracting oil. The oil is used to polish boat hulls in order to make them waterproof,” he said while referring to incidents when fishermen deliberately killed the species.
Citing historical data, he said that whale shark fishing was carried out regularly along Karachi coast back in 1850s but it stopped in 1970s. The fish’s meat, he said, had an awful taste and was not eaten in Pakistan.
“Ours’ is the only country without a marine protected area in the region. We have to protect the species legally as well as conserve their habitat. Besides, there is a dire need for creating awareness of whale sharks,” he said.
WWF-P director Rab Nawaz also spoke.