A video shows 11 fishers on a fishing boat using yellow ropes to tug and haul at their catch. In the middle of the deck, lying still, is their surprise catch — a 5-feet-long shark weighing nearly 800 kg. The back and sides of this shark fades from grey to brown and its unmistakeable patterned-white spots instantly reveal its identity.
The fishers had caught an udumban shraav or whale shark — the largest existing fish in the planet’s oceans and a highly endangered species. A Schedule 1 protected species, as per the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, whale sharks are a rare and precious find in the blue waters of the Arabian Sea.
However, instead of celebrating their prized catch, the 11 fishers use their last reserves of energy to save the shark's life and release it back into the ocean.
This video, shot 22 nautical miles off the coast of Kerala’s Kozhikode district, became viral on social media last week, earning the fishers plaudits from marine life activists and common folks alike. The fishers have now been identified as 11 crew members of the Deva Sarathi boat, operating in the Kozhikode's Puthiyappa harbour.
Speaking to TNM, Abhilash alias Muthu, the assistant captain of the Deva Sarathi, recalls their adventurous rescue operation to save the whale shark on the night of January 25.
"It was on the fourth day of our fishing trip and we were close to Koyilandi. We were not sure when it got trapped in the net. But the moment we realised that it was breathing and still had life, we immediately set about to release it back into the water," he recounts.
According to Muthu, all crew members were aware that they had caught an endangered species and worked hard to save its life.
"If we had left it in the net for long it would have died. So we dragged it back into the boat, removed the net and released it back. The whole exercise took us over two hours, with some of us getting hurt in the process" Muthu adds.
The fishers also lend some credit to the whale shark. "It was so calm and barely moved. At 5 feet and weighing 800 kg, any sort of resistance (thrashing) from it could have cost us our lives," he says.
‘We were aware they are endangered’
Critically threatened as per the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Endangered Species, whale sharks have been dwindling in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal waters. About a decade ago, these migratory carpet sharks found in the upper columns of the water were regularly hunted by fishers for its skin and meat, especially in the coasts of Gujarat.
"In 2015, a documentary titled Shores of Silence: Whalesharks in India, by filmmaker Mike Panday, highlighted the needless fishing and harvesting of this species by fisher communities in India, bringing about major legislative changes by the government for the conservation of these species," Chaitanya, founder of InSeasonFish, the sustainable fishing initiative in India, tells TNM.
The widespread hunting, however, did take a toll on the whale shark population, depleting its reserves in the subcontinent’s water bodies in this time period.
"In 20 years of my life as a fisherman, I have never spotted whale sharks in the waters here. So when I found one, my first instinct was to protect its life by setting it free as I know that there are not many of them left in the world," Abhilash adds.
Over the years, marine conservation bodies and independent activists have also been spreading awareness among fisher communities, bringing about increased sensitisation.
Lauding their effort, Chaitanya says, “This heartwarming act by the fishermen of Puthiyappa definitely has a bigger message. That finally, sensitisation initiatives are working to protect endangered species. With increased awareness, there have been other stories across India’s coasts where fisherfolk have released whale sharks after catching them. Soon this will become a norm and not an exception. And if it does, we have these fishermen to thank.”
Social media users, too, were quick to praise the fishermen for their efforts.
So glad to see the effort made to help the creature live....— Meghna Girish (@megirish2001) January 29, 2020
wah .... what an effort to put the giant back into the water .. you guys are awesome— Twitizen of India (@tweepleofindia) January 30, 2020
Fabulous! They are the true keepers of our planet!— Pervin Sanghvi (@pervinsanghvi) January 28, 2020