Conservation news

Mobile app encourages Indian fishers to free entangled whale sharks

A whale shark in Mexico. Image by MarAlliance2018 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

A whale shark in Mexico. Image by MarAlliance2018 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  • When whale sharks in waters off the Indian state of Gujarat get trapped in fishing nets, a new mobile app lets fishers easily document their release.
  • Conservationists and fishers alike hope the app will speed up the compensation fishers receive for damaged nets.
  • However, fishers say the compensation, a maximum of 25,000 rupees ($360), should be increased to reflect the true loss of their revenue during their downtime without nets.

When fisherfolk in India’s westernmost state of Gujarat find a whale shark tangled in their fishing nets, it’s an unwelcome sight. They can’t legally harvest the protected species, yet the world’s biggest fish can wreak costly havoc on a net. To encourage fishers to spare whale sharks rather than haul them illegally to market, the state offers them compensation. Until now, though, getting paid has entailed navigating a cumbersome bureaucracy and often prickly personal relationships with local authorities.

In March, the Gujarat Forest Department launched a mobile app intended to dramatically simplify the existing compensation process. The app, called Vhali Watcher after the fish’s local name, is suitable for the low-end smartphones used by impoverished fisherfolks. It works offline too, so fishers can use it in open waters with limited internet.

It enables the fishers to document their mercy for whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) by photographing their fortuitous catch and saving the data directly on government servers. The photographs are embedded with date and location data accurate up to 10 meters (32 feet). To minimize potential abuse, the app won’t upload images taken via other means, and photos snapped via the app are neither transferable nor storable.

Fishers disentangle a whale shark accidentally caught in a fishing net. Image courtesy of Wildlife Trust of India.

To compensate for damaged fishing gear, since 2007 the government has offered up to 25,000 rupees ($360) to anyone who voluntarily lets go of a whale shark by cutting their nets. But the procedure for claiming the money was onerous: it required tedious paperwork, several days spent at government offices at the expense of fishing, and took about a month for the payment to come through.

“It is a huge loss for the fisherfolks when nets are cut and their entire livelihood is threatened,” said Veljibhai Masani, leader of a fishermen’s association in Gujarat. “The 25,000 rupees is the maximum while usually 10,000 to 15,000 rupees is what’s paid to fishers on average. In fact, more men are needed to free an entangled whale shark, demanding significant help from other fishermen. [The existing amount] is highly discouraging to us.”

Masani said the app would at least fast-track the payment. He expressed hope that the government might increase the compensation to cover the actual loss of fuel and fishing time, saying this would encourage the fishers immensely.

Akshay Kumar Saxena, a senior conservation official with the Gujarat Forest Department, said the department is considering doing just that. He also said it hopes to expand the scheme to other species, like dolphins and dugongs, and to use the collected data to better manage the region’s marine ecosystem.

The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a nonprofit organization that has worked on the Gujarat coast for more than a decade, developed Vhali Watcher. Sajan John, chief of WTI’s maritime division, said that under the old procedure fishers had to start their quest for compensation by approaching a local community leader known as a patel, then seek permission from the regional forest officer, who would forward the request to higher authorities. Personal conflicts between patels and fishermen often obstructed the process and hindered conservation efforts, he added.

A public demonstration for Gujarat fishers of how to rescue whale sharks accidentally caught in fishing nets. Image courtesy of Wildlife Trust of India.

In the initial years of the compensation scheme, fishers used to drag whale sharks to the nearest shore to claim their money, generally killing or severely injuring the fish, recalled Farukh Bloch, a marine researcher with WTI in Gujarat. Later, the fishers were asked to submit photographic evidence documenting their rescues. WTI distributed more than 1,000 waterproof non-digital cameras to fishers in the region, but some instances of malpractice turned up, like the reuse of photos.

Alongside streamlining compensation claims, the app allows fishers to register other data, such as the animal’s size, gender and apparent mood with the forest department. John of WTI said this information could help build a formidable database of whale shark sightings along the 1,600-kilometer (990-mile) Gujarat coast.

A large-mouthed, spotted fish that can grow to 12 meters (40 feet), the whale shark is distinctly recognizable. It is a filter feeder that poses no threat to humans. The sharks can live up to 130 years and reproduce only once every few years. The Gujarat coast is a breeding ground, with some sharks traveling from Somalia to get there. One tagged shark logged a journey of 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) from Gujarat back to Somalia, according to WTI research.

A model whale shark during a conservation campaign parade put on by the Gujarat Forest Department. Image courtesy of Wildlife Trust of India.

Until the dawn of the 21stcentury, Gujarat was a hotbed of whale shark hunting, with 15 to 20 fish being killed annually. In addition to the fins, which went to lucrative Asian markets, fishers hunted whale sharks for liver oil to waterproof their boats. Even after India accorded whale sharks “protected species” status under the Wildlife Protection Act in 2001, the slaughter continued due to lack of awareness in the coastal belt.

But the state has not documented a single hunt in the past 14 years, and fishers have reported rescuing more than 700 whale sharks in the last decade and a half, thanks to relentless conservation efforts by Gujarat’s forest officials an WTI. Gujarat’s “Save the Whale Shark” movement launched in 2004 with domestic campaigns, street plays and awareness films, and it has overturned fishers’ attitudes toward the species. Locals give credit to the influence of a popular and revered spiritual leader named Morari Bapu, who encouraged people to treat the majestic creatures with affection as part of the campaign.

Researchers find it hard to estimate the exact population of Indo-Pacific whale sharks, which usually frequent the Gujarat coast between September and May. The species, listed as endangered by the IUCN, is highly migratory and inhabits tropical and warm temperate waters. Indo-Pacific whale sharks, which account for 75 percent of the world’s population of the species (the rest live in the Atlantic), have dwindled by 63 percent over the past 75 years, according to the IUCN.

A whale shark in Mexico. Image by MarAlliance2018 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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