Saving the Whale Shark — No Room for Ahabs

There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head.
“Where away?” demanded the captain.
“Three points off the lee bow, Sir.”
“Raise up your wheel. Steady!”
“Steady Sir.”
“Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?”
“Ay Ay Sir. A shoal of Sperm Whales. There she blows! There she breaches!”
“Sing out! Sing out every time.”
“Ay Ay Sir. There –there- that – she blows – bowesbooos!”
“How far off, Cmon!”
“Eh, two miles and a half.”
“Thunder and Lightning! So near! Call all hands!”

J Ross Browne, Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, 1846

Such was indeed the mind-dazzling, consciousness-melting sight of a huge mermaid that could overwhelm sense and render people with huge spears speechless when it danced effortlessly in deep waters with a body that go anywhere between 45-100 ft. long and 20- 200 tons in weight.

Think of 33 elephants prancing about in dangerously-deep waters and you would imagine why whale has been a favourite for authors, poets, playwrights and even scientists for centuries. It is a Cetacean but unlike other Cetaceans like dolphins, or porpoises, it has been unique in evoking the fury, greed and endearment of mankind with equal ferocity.

Whether it is the Baleen whale, Humpbacks, Gray Whales, Bowheads, or the Sperm Whales, they have always been a pet when it came to those wielding the harpoon of fiction as well as those craning their necks on the mast-heads of mystery.

But they have become all the more impossible to spot for mast-head vigilantes. Not because someone is on a Pequod, but because someone is living in an era where truth is more unforgiving than fiction.

 Balaenoptera, Balaena, Eschrichtius, or Eubalaen or whatever else you christen it, the sad twist in the plot is that today, they have been named something that just doesn’t befit their legendary might: an ‘Endangered Species’.

And re-classified at that as per the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The WWF status has swung the needle to ‘vulnerable’ now and there is not much guesswork as to how and why. As many as six out of the 13 great whale species got classified as endangered, even after decades of protection.

It doesn’t help much with those consumed with Ahab-like derangement fed by greed of hunting, of commercial extremism, of ignorant human habits but WWF does argue for whale’s relevance when it states that whales are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment.

But the thick layer of blubber that has always helped whales to be insulated from cold ocean waters; could not keep way from the reckless spears of human tendencies.

Could it be because of the international market value, or the colossal demand for their meat, fins, medicinal product-use and oil? Shall we account this to the unrestrained rise of unregulated fisheries or that accidental by-catch capture? Some whales suffer their un-written fate due to collisions with ships, some get entangled in fishing gear and some just bow down to the lance of climate-change and global warming.

The javelin of irony twists further for this amazing creature that was supposed to have the unusual powers of communicating with complex and mysterious sounds. Today, thanks to shipping activity and oil and gas development’s by-product called noise, whales’ hearing is being miserably disrupted and even damaged, and in turn, affecting their critical feeding and breeding grounds, and migratory paths adversely. As to the warming oceans, severely-altered seawater temperatures, foraging scarcity, and loss of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, the habitats and food of whales have suffered in a serious way – not only ruining their migratory patterns but also harming their reproductive rates.

Commercial whaling that began in the 1800’s has been considered as a major cause too for driving many whale species to extinction. Looks like a moratorium on commercial whaling and a ban on international trade of whale products, did not help much with people and countries that continue their berserk hunting for commercial purposes. It turns out that mere 300 North Atlantic right whales remain; while the number for other species swims between 10,000 to 90,000.

Look closer home. This majestic being was also slaughtered right around us – along the Gujarat coast in large numbers for its oil and meat. After registering a steep decline in its population 2001 saw declaration of this species as an endangered one. Official figures reveal that before 2001, over 150 whale sharks were poached along the Gujarat coast. Independent figures however put this number at 500. Despite the efforts of the rescue team, a large number of whale sharks were dying due to entanglement and stress induced by the extensive travel time taken by the rescue team to reach the site.

But hope hasn’t drowned beyond reach. Conservation efforts and massive campaigns have been working tirelessly for arresting this rapid decline. At least, some whale populations are stable or slowly increasing. WWF has placed satellite tags on 29 whale sharks and the organization, in parallel, is supporting whale shark studies to gather more knowledge bits on the population, their habitat use and migratory pathways in the waters surrounding Mafia Island, Coastal East Africa.

Then there are other interventions like checking and security in ports, catching illegal fishermen, integrating data sets and tracking suspicious vessels that are in progress to turn the tide of extinction as soon as they can.

This makes the Whale Shark Campaign that was jointly launched in January 2004 Tata Chemicals, Wildlife Trust of India, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Gujarat Forest Department, the Coast Guard, the Indian Navy, the Ministry of Environment and Reef; equally timely and remarkable.

Its intent was to spread awareness, educate and change perceptions about the fish among specific target groups in the region. This project is currently in its third phase and is being implemented in partnership with the Wildlife Trust of India and the Gujarat State Forest Department with support from the fishing communities of Veraval, Sutrapada and Dhamlej region. Till date, a total of 601 whale sharks which were incidentally caught in the fishing nets of the locals have been rescued and released.

The next phase of the Whale Shark Conservation programme that also happens to be India’s first ever whale shark satellite as well as marker tagging programme has meanwhile been initiated. Thus far, four whale sharks have been tagged with satellite transmitter and an effort is being made to understand the migratory patterns of the specie. At the same time, as many as 132 fishermen were given training on deploying marker tags on the rescued fish that could reveal more about the population.

Such efforts may look like drops compared to the ocean of vast damage that humanity has already wrought upon whales.  But like Herman Melville himself captured so poignantly, like a dart in the heart, “…we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

It’s heartening that we are starting somewhere. Let’s see the view from the mast-head of this new voyage. Let’s find out if and why Alka Talwar, Head, Corporate Sustainability, Tata Chemicals  in coversation with Pratima H spots any sightings of hope, resurrection, and relief for this amazing wonder called ‘whale’. Watch out for how tapping on emotional stirrings like ‘it’s like a daughter who has come to her parental home to give birth to her offspring’ and how Atithi devo bhava and Morari Bapu’s creative insistence could have played an unexpected but effective role here.

How much of the campaign’s strategy and formula is derived from WWF and what’s the value (besides the financial angle) that the company brought to the table as a corporate partner?

 The campaign strategy and formula has been developed by us, Tata Chemicals Ltd. (TCL) in association with our project implementing partner, “The Wildlife Trust of India”.  The initiatives under this program are pioneering in nature and are being implemented for the first time in India. These are not derived from WWF.

Besides the financial support and logistics for this project, employees at TCL have volunteered in a big way to create awareness about the Whale Shark among the coastal communities along the Saurashtra coastline through street plays, rallies, games, posters, inflated Whale Shark flotillas, postage stamps and school art competitions.

Why did the company choose Whale Sharks? Apart from geographical reasons?

In May 2001, the Government of India banned fishing and trade of the Whale Shark and placed this fish under Schedule-I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, thereby granting it the highest legal protection. However, due to the long coastline of the Saurashtra region and inadequate resources for enforcement, scattered reports of the killings kept trickling in.  The scientific community had hardly any information about the Whale Shark.

Being the largest fish in the world, it is a prized species. The Whale Shark is a slow breeder and has a low rate of reproduction. Depletion of population, especially the breeding population, could further deteriorate the status of the species.  Although, it is difficult to predict what effect this would have, to lose a species that has been estimated to be as old as the dinosaur and whom we do not have enough knowledge about, would seemingly be a big loss.

This prompted TCL to partner with the Wildlife Trust of India to embark on the Whale Shark conservation journey. Further, the project is also in line with our organizational goal of “Giving Back to the Community and Mother Nature”.

What’s more helpful in addressing the problem: human effort or technology’s help?

 It is the human effort that truly counts. The support we have received from the fishing communities of the Saurashtra region has been the key to success for the Whale Shark project. It has resulted in the rescue and release of over 650 Whale Sharks which were incidentally caught in fishing nets. This is one of the greatest milestones that we have achieved in our bid to save an endangered marine species, the size of a Whale Shark.

Changing inveterate mindsets, like those of fishermen, could have been far tough than it appears. Anything you can share on that? How do you fight myths and fears associated with this creature?

The major challenge lay in convincing the fishing community along the Saurashtra coast to cooperate with us and support the Whale Shark Conservation project. The increasing demand for Whale Shark meat in the South East Asian countries has always given fishermen an added incentive to hunt the Whale Shark. The low awareness and the perception of the local community towards the Whale Shark acted as a hindrance in designing this effective campaign.

The campaign roped in “Morari Bapu” – a spiritual leader to be the brand ambassador for the project, creating linkages with Indian traditions in his discourses. Morari Bapu first talked about our tradition of ‘Ahimsa’ in the land of Mahatma Gandhi. Then, linking the fact that the Whale Shark is a visitor to the coast of Gujarat, he brought in the tradition of ‘Atithi devo bhava’ – guest is God. But, what created the strongest linkage was when he mentioned that because the Whale Shark comes to our shores to breed, she is like a daughter coming home to her mother’s house (‘maike’) for child birth.  It is in line with our local culture and tradition that we need to protect her and stop slaughtering her.

The fish was repositioned as the ‘Pride of Gujarat’ and‘Vhali’ or the dearest one to generate an emotional appeal for the Whale Shark which was earlier known as ‘Barrel’.  It was portrayed as a daughter of Gujarat coming home to give birth to her child. Hence, the people of Gujarat who are the proud parents must ensure to protect her.  This emotional appeal struck the right chord with the fishing communities and they have been actively supporting the conservation efforts since then.

Does this focus on Whale Sharks go out of alignment with promoting tourism in some regions?

Value of the Whale Shark in terms of revenue generated through tourism is much higher as compared to that generated by its hunt. This has been established in Australia, known to be among the countries with best Whale Shark tourism practices. The project is exploring the possibilities of establishing similar Whale Shark tourism in India to provide incentives to coastal communities for their contribution in conservation of marine wildlife and habitats.

Have you tried to address the market-side of this problem in any way?

As one of the only companies in the country to have spear-headed the Whale Shark conservation campaign in association with WTI and the Gujarat Government, we are trying to concentrate our efforts in saving and tagging as many Whale Sharks as we can. The project campaigned and partnered with the Government of Gujarat to mitigate the loss from fishing nets that are needed to be cut to release captured whale sharks.  The first two people who were able to implement this successfully were compensated by Tata Chemicals Ltd. Post that they are being compensated by the Govt. of Gujarat.

Any interventions in general on the chemicals, effluent, and waste management side for the specific industry you operate in?

We are committed to responsible care for the environment from which we draw resources for our Living, Industry, and Farm Essentials (LIFE) product portfolio. Since the past decade, the company has initiated various programmes on environment protection, sustenance and eco-conscious growth and aims to serve society through science. As a member of the Tata Group, we aim to abate climate change with a sense of shared responsibility and have started tracking our carbon footprint in order to reduce carbon emissions. For our chemicals, effluent and waste management portfolio, we are compliant with the norms laid down by Government bodies. For example, in 2004, the Babrala Township received the ISO 14001 certification for implementation of Environment Management System by the certification audit conducted by KPMG, India. Additionally, environment is a key issue in Mithapur, which is an ISO-14001 certified plant. The emphasis is on waste reduction, proper garbage disposal and conservation of natural resources. Environmental awareness drives are held regularly and township have a ‘no plastics’ policy.


Additional Sources:


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: