A Whale of a Tale

A Whale of a Tale

By Umair Shahid
is Assistant Manager, Marine Programme, WWF-Pakistan.
Tweets @UmairUshahid

In the coastal areas of Pakistan, a group of fishermen are making daily decisions and saving hundreds of rare marine species in the Arabian Sea. One such fisherman is Iqrar, originally from the north of Pakistan, he never thought that his work would win him titles and awards. But Iqrar’s work is extraordinary. Since 2012 he has safely released live endangered, threatened and protected species including whale sharks, sea turtles, and rays among others and it is fair to say he has earned the accolades.

Working as a labourer well before he became a fisherman Iqrar had adjusted to living in the mountains. He had to move due to political unrest, and ended up on the coast in search of a livelihood to support his family. For the coastal communities, all prosperity is proportional to the fish of the sea, so naturally for Iqrar fishing was the first choice.  He has successfully demonstrated that change can come in any form, whether it is attitude, practice or approach, saving the life of an animal is not very different to saving the life of a human being.

The threat of by-catch, unwanted catch or incidental catch poses a real threat, about which fishermen around the coast of Pakistan are well aware. This by-catch, however, has its economic benefits. For instance catching a shark is of more value than catching tuna. There are around 500 gillnet vessels targeting tuna and tuna-like species in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Pakistan with a by-catch rate of 33 sharks caught per square kilometre of net deployed per year, which means an average length of a gillnet of 5 km ends up catching around 4,000 sharks per year. If this number is further extrapolated to the total number of vessels, around 2 million sharks alone can be caught in Pakistan leading to changes in the ecosystem, and disrupting the food chain leading to a collapse in the fisheries.
The statistics above might not mean anything to many people, but for Iqrar this is serious and he feels responsible. For him this responsibility comes from how he sees fishing and fisheries.
“What is fishing? Is fishing a business or a means of livelihood? If it is a business, I have no issues, one can do as he pleases and take everything from the sea. But if you consider it a livelihood, it has to be sustainable, it must be maintained for future generations, otherwise there will be no fish left in the sea,” explains Iqrar. But unfortunately not a lot of fishermen think like Iqrar and the fisheries in Pakistan is suffering due to high by-catch, but also due to a lack of reporting on what is caught and what is not. It occurs to an extent where consumers in Pakistan are not aware whether the finger fish they are eating is actually a shark or not, let alone how to distinguish if a catch is from a sustainable source or not. Furthermore, the lack of reporting on the data such as shark species caught, how many and from where were they are caught, does not allow government line agencies or policymakers to make informed decisions.

Fishermen like Iqrar provide a solution by changing practices, attitudes and extending cooperation, because they care for future generations. Since 2012, Iqrar has helped provide data on all the fish that he catches including fishing locations, and species composition. But more importantly, he is an innovator and a trendsetter, the first one to take the initiative to release live endangered, threatened and protected species entangled in his net. He has very actively been engaged in the crew based observer programme of WWF-Pakistan and has understood the core value of conservation work. He has with pure dedication and valour, dived into the sea to untangle the biggest shark on Earth, a whale shark.

“I was on the observation deck, shouting to my men to keep the boat steady and to haul the net back in, when I caught glimpse of something huge, a giant, entangled in my net. I immediately knew that the only thing this big could be a whale shark, which is called darwaish, a saint of the sea, a gentle giant. I quickly prepared myself to dive into the water, as my men picked up their knives to help me cut the net, but as soon as I got close to the whale shark, I realized it would take the strength of at least five men to untangle it. I prayed to God at that moment, and started untangling it, my crew watched me wrestle with the net and the shark for 15 minutes. They were hypnotised by the sight. Eager to help me one of my men, Ahmed, dived in as well. We worked as a team and after another 15 minutes of struggle we cut off part of the net and managed to untangle the shark. I quickly got on the boat, tired, exhausted and gasping, worried if it was still alive, and to my great pleasure the 18 foot whale shark started swimming away from the boat. I felt as if it was saying thank you as it looked at the boat and then dived under. It was a moment of pure bliss, it was as if I had found peace within me.”

The incident took place near the great Khori bank, a common fishing ground, but also a hotspot for marine megafauna. The area is rich in marine biodiversity and has been recognized as an ecologically and biologically significant marine area by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UN-CBD).

Sitting now in front of me, I see such a warm smile spread across Iqrar’s face, as he proudly shares that, since 2012, he has successfully released 18 whale sharks, two manta rays, one guitarfish, two sunfish, three sea snakes, three rhomboid squids, one beaked whale, two bottlenose dolphins and hundreds of sea turtles. I feel the pride he takes in the by-catch safe release and the crew based observer programme that WWF-Pakistan has successfully initiated under the GEF/Common Oceans/FAO funding for conserving and protecting the biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction.
“This is excellent work, Iqrar is a brother to us, and he has given us a new sense of living. Previously, we just went in the sea and thought everything is ours, we can do what we want, but we are slowly understanding, learning and becoming part of something big. We are illiterate, but we understand that ensuring livelihoods for future is much more important than to satisfy our own greed,” says a young crew member working for Iqrar.

“This is what excites me the most, I feel I am a teacher. When I was in my village in the north, my father always wanted me to be educated and teach in a government school. When I teach our youth about sustainable fishing, I feel my father’s dream is realized. This makes me so proud and happy. Who would have thought, I will be a hero to my family one day,” Iqrar adds with a shy smile.

UmairShahid is Assistant Manager, Marine Programme, WWF-Pakistan.

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