Fishermen interviews in Golabandha, Odisha © WTI/IUCN
The objectives of this project are to:
Marine megafauna aggregate in large numbers along the off-shore waters (seasonally) as part of their breeding and feeding requirement (Eg. Olive Ridley turtles Lepidochelys olivacea). Along with other megafauna whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are also known to aggregate spatially. Despite its widespread distribution, very little is known about this giant fish. Although regular sightings have been reported across the globe, only very few studies have been conducted across the world on whale sharks. Studies suggest that the species may exhibit variable behavioural traits, and thus, local, isolated conservation initiatives restricted to a particular zone or state may not be sufficient for effective conservation of the species. Thus, more consolidated approaches across a larger ‘landscape’ of marine environment will be required to successfully conserve the species.
In India, records of the presence of whale sharks in the form of landings come from as far back as 1889. In fact, the only detailed information available from India is mostly from reports on beached whale sharks. Additionally, it is well known that whale sharks have been persecuted in large numbers along the coast of Gujarat, and possibly other states too, primarily for the oil produced from their liver.
Only one long term research and conservation project on whale shark has been initiated in India so far. This ongoing project, initiated by the WTI along with TATA Chemicals Limited, focuses on spreading awareness on the plight of the species, understanding its biology and carry out the feasibility of whale shark tourism for its long term survival. The project focuses on understanding the biology, demography and ecology of the species as well. Satellite tagging of one of the whale shark populations has yielded first hand information on the local movement of these animals between different coastal states along the west coast (WTI, unpublished data).
In Gujarat, WTI’s efforts over the last 12 years have helped to not only identify large aggregates of whale sharks along the coastlines, but also put an end to the mindless slaughter of the whale sharks. Under this continued effort to stop the organized hunting of the species, additional data from several other maritime states other than Gujarat is required, pertaining to hunting, beaching as well as just temporal presence.
In 2012, WTI initiated a questionnaire based survey across the west coast of the India (four states), in order to achieve the above mentioned objective. The project revealed crude but crucial information of whale shark aggregation along the west coast of India.
The proposed project aim to collect information on the spatial and seasonal aggregation of whale sharks along with other marine megafauna through secondary accounts of fishers and to understand how the coastal fishing communities can be benefited out of this information to improve their livelihood. Similar survey along Andhra Pradesh coast resulted in identification of whale shark aggregation off-shore to Coringa mangroves. In the proposed project we would like investigate whether off-shore waters of Bitharkanika mangroves also harbors any congregation of Marine Megafauna.
Once the project is launched, the state department will benefit from the information mined through the project, which will also help them to implement localised management plans. Additionally the information generated will contribute to the global understanding of the Whale shark distribution and habitat preferences along with other megafauna. Additionally, once important hotspots are identified, local fishing communities will be targeted for involvement in active conservation measures, such as rescues, for which appropriate compensatory schemes will also be developed for their benefit.
Livelihood linkages: If hotspots are found across the study area, local fishing communities will be sensitised about the presence of the whale sharks/ other marine megafauna. Coastal tourism can be promoted with community participation around these hot spots. This in turn can generate extra income for coastal fishing communities thus by reducing the livelihood dependences on the marine resources. All of this will constitute future continuation phases of the current project, under a long term conservation approach
The project outputs will be:
East coast of India is more prone to cyclones and about 80 per cent of the total cyclones generated in the Indian Ocean strike the east coast of India. There are two definite seasons of tropical cyclones in the North Indian Ocean. One is from May to June and the other from mid-September to mid-December. May, June, October and November are known for severe storms. The destructive effect of cyclonic storms is confined to coastal districts and the maximum destruction being within 100 km from the centre of the cyclones and on the right of the storm track. Death and destruction purely due to winds are relatively less. The collapse of buildings, falling trees, flying debris, electrocution, rain and aircraft accidents and disease from contaminated food and water in the post-cyclone period also contribute to loss of life and destruction of property.
Current threats to whale sharks involve incidental entanglement in fishing gears and stranding due to fisheries related injuries/increased vessel traffic.
There is no information available to say about the effects of toxic pollutants that may assimilate through its food nor the effect of plastics, tar balls and other flotsam it may accidentally imbibe. All these need to be studied along the Bay of Bengal coast. Among the total 2392 interviewed fishers from Odisha and West Bengal, only 32% (n=783) of the fishers were aware that whale shark is protected by law and cannot be captured and traded.
Awareness campaign about the whale sharks and its ecological importance is required as an immediate action.
Coastal cleanup program may also be required to minimize the levels of toxic pollutants.
18th Jul 2016 to 17th May 2017
Odisha State Forest Department
Dr. BC Choudhury
Wildlife Trust of India