The whale shark is said to be the largest living fish species found in all the oceans and seas of the world, often measuring well over 40 feet long. Called the “Gentle giant of the sea” it is a harmless shark that is found in the warmer high seas as well as coastal waters. Last month, there was outrage in Pakistan as five whale sharks were killed in the space of two weeks, caught in bottom trawlers and gillnets. Their large carcasses were put on display before being chopped into pieces and sold as fishmeal. The whale shark is listed as a ‘vulnerable’ species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to threats from commercial fishing. However, in Pakistan there is no law that bans the catch of whale sharks.
“Studies and observations show that the Arabian Sea is serving as a feeding, resting and breeding ground for these fish,” explains Mohammad Moazzam Khan, who served as a former director of the government’s marine fisheries department for a decade before joining the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) as a consultant.
“It is an oceanic fish whose migratory patterns have not yet been fully understood. In Pakistan it is caught as an accidental by-catch. Because of the recent market development in fishmeal (where any organic matter is used), fishermen don’t make an effort to throw it back into the sea once it is caught in their nets.” Khan has been maintaining a record of whale sharks caught in the last eight years, which he claims is around 42. He attributes the high number of whale sharks killed and brought to Pakistani shores to “a drastic increase in fishing fleet and unregulated fishing operations”.
Pakistan ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in February 1997. However, the UNCLOS does not cover the high seas where highly migratory fish like the whale shark thrive. According to the comprehensive report released last week by the Global Ocean Commission, an independent international commission made up of former heads of state, ministers and business leaders, “When the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — the ‘constitution for the ocean’ — was negotiated the high seas was protected by its inaccessibility. Today, there is virtually nowhere that industrial fishing vessels cannot reach … The concept of the ‘freedom of the high seas’ guaranteed in the Convention once conjured up images of adventure and opportunity, but it is now driving a relentless ‘tragedy of the commons’, characterised by the depletion of fish stocks and other precious marine resources.”
The country needs a marine protected area to safeguard not only whale shark but also other endangered species that visit our waters
Entitled “From Decline to Recovery, A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean”, the report highlights the issues faced by high seas ecosystems, which are estimated to be responsible for nearly half of the biological productivity of the entire ocean. The high seas are the areas of ocean that fall outside the national jurisdiction of a state (beyond the 200 nautical miles of a country’s coastal Exclusive Economic Zone). The high seas make up 64 per cent of the total surface area of the ocean.
The report points out that the high seas also provide a critical life-support function for areas within the national jurisdiction of coastal countries and what happens on the high seas can and does have a significant impact on the ecological health and productivity of the Exclusive Economic Zones. Fish like the whale sharks live in the high seas but migrate to the coastal areas of Pakistan and India to feed and breed.
The Global Ocean Commission, that was established in 2013 and tasked with analysing the main challenges and threats to the high seas and developing proposals to address them, would like to see UNCLOS to be effectively brought up-to-date with current realities through an additional agreement that emphasises protection, conservation and equity in the high seas.
In its report, it also proposes that “a stand-alone UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) should be established for the ocean along with a properly resourced and mandated UN Special Representative for the Ocean; heads of state should appoint ocean envoys.” The Ocean SDG would firmly position the ocean as a priority in the post-2015 development agenda, and help to provide resources at the international, regional, national and local levels to generate measurable action and initiatives like sustainable fishing, protection of vulnerable areas, reducing marine biodiversity loss, combating illegal fishing and eliminating plastics pollution.
Recognising that ocean fisheries and aquaculture provide food for billions of people as well as livelihoods for millions, the Global Ocean Commission further advocates that “in five years’ time, if ocean decline continues because adequate measures have not been put in place, the world community of states should consider turning the high seas — with the exception of those areas where action by Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) is effective — into a regeneration zone where industrial fishing is prevented.”
Negotiations on a high seas implementing agreement under UNCLOS must be completed before August 2015. A new implementing agreement would aim to protect the health, productivity and resilience of the ocean and marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.
According to the report, “It could allow the designation of marine protected areas (MPAs); establish common principles, targets and objectives; provide an overarching mandate for the conservation and management of biodiversity on the high seas…”
In Pakistan, Khan says the country urgently needs a “marine protected area” that would help safeguard vulnerable species like the whale sharks and endangered species like the green turtles and the olive ridley turtles, which also migrate to Pakistani waters and are caught in fishing nets. Experts say that whale sharks have a tendency to be site-faithful, returning regularly to the same seasonal feeding locations year after year. The Global Ocean Commission’s recommendations offer them their best chance of survival in the future.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 29th, 2014