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Pod of humpback whales sighted off Karachi coast

Updated September 22, 2016

KARACHI: Several sightings of humpback whales, in varying numbers, have been reported off the coast of Karachi last week, which is a rare phenomenon, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-P).

Scientifically known as Megaptera novaeangliae, the humpback whale has 14 distinct population segments in the world and the one inhabiting the Arabian Sea is the smallest, with most distinct features, and is at a high risk of becoming extinct.

On Wednesday, WWF-P officials reported that a humpback whale was first sighted on Sept 12 by Captain Islam Badshah while he was fishing 12km south of Karachi. In the second instance the same day, a pod of four whales of the same species was spotted by Captain Iqrar Mohammad, 14km south of Karachi.

The last sighting occurred on Sept 17, about 22km south of Karachi by Captain Badshah Nawab.

All were out to sea to catch tuna.

“This is the first time that more than one humpback whale has been observed along the Pakistan coast. Earlier, a single specimen of the Arabian Sea humpback whale was either observed in the offshore waters or beached along the coast,” said technical advisor on marine fisheries at WWF-P, Mohammad Moazzam Khan.

All fishermen were very excited on seeing, and capturing images of what they described in their local languages as Veesar (Sindhi) and Leair (Balochi), he added.

Citing some estimates, Khan said that only 82 individuals of the species were left.

“The humpback whale, inhabiting the Arabian Sea, is considered to be an isolated subpopulation of this whale that does not migrate to colder, temperate or polar waters for feeding or breeding purposes.

“Its range is believed to extend from the coasts of Yemen and Oman in the west, to Iran, Pakistan and India in the east,” he said.

Energy exploration and fishing gear entanglements, he pointed out, were considered as major threats to the endangered humpback whales.

“In addition, disease, vessel collisions, and climate change are believed to be affecting its population. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has categorised the Arabian Sea Distinct Population Segment at high risk of extinction,” Khan said.

He appreciated the fishermen trained in marine species identification and rescuing endangered species. He said that fishermen in Pakistan generally avoided interaction with whales as they could become entangled in fishing gear.

“They do not lay their nets in the area where whales are observed or are considered as hotspot of whales including the area in the south of Karachi which is a natural abode of whales. On a number of occasions, fishermen have released entangled cetaceans (whales and dolphins).

“This is so because they consider these species as sacred as they are mammals and breathe like human beings. Besides, they have no commercial value,” he explained.

On the legislative side for protecting endangered marine mammals, Khan was of the opinion that though whales had been declared protected species this year under the fisheries legislations of the governments of Sindh and Balochistan, there was a need to declare them, along with other cetaceans, protected under the wildlife law.

“The Balochistan government has done so under the Balochistan Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Act 2014 but the Sindh government hasn’t.

“Violations under the wildlife law carry higher fines and stricter punishments as compared to the fisheries law, which gives prime importance to the fisherman’s sustenance,” he said.

Senior director progammes at WWF-P Rab Nawaz called for effective implementation of the law and development of a mechanism for collaborative research and conservation strategy for humpback whales.

“The organisation’s Arabian Sea Humpback Whale Network had organised an international workshop in Dubai last year. Experts at the workshop concluded that close cooperation between regional countries is required to protect this whale subspecies.”

Sightings of this rare whale was a good omen and provided evidence to the belief that a viable population of this species existed in Pakistan, he said.

Published in Dawn September 22nd, 2016