It was a lovely day on the water. A gentle breeze, a calm, deep blue sea with just a slight ripple – a perfect day for scanning the horizon for dolphins. And lo and behold, we caught sight of a mega-pod of spinner dolphins and were soon busy with data sheets, camera, hydrophone, stopwatch and all that jazz. We got back to shore satisfied with our day on the water. At the docking site, our fisher friends were emptying their catches from their gill-net and hook-line fishing boats. I stopped short when I noticed the largest mobulid I had ever seen, and then the largest sharks I had ever seen too. A whole school of thresher sharks, about 11 of them, an almost equal number of males and females, and each one two metres or more long. I was bewildered. I frowned. It stayed with me. The pain of seeing beauty dead. The wonder at their presence. Questions about why these adult males and females were hanging out together.
As often happens, thoughts that stick lead somewhere. Later in the year I was asked to attend a discussion on banning the practice of shark finning in India. As I prepared for the meeting, I was intrigued by how little we know about sharks in India – their diversity, ecology and life history – or about shark fisheries. At the time, CITES 2013 made a recommendation to the Indian government to list four species of elasmobranchs and manta rays under Appendix II, and Humane Society International proposed a ‘Fins Attached Policy’ recommendation to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The project with the SOSF came about as a result of these two recommendations. I needed to know more before I could jump on any bandwagon.
I hold a PhD degree from James Cook University, Australia. My thesis focused on Irrawaddy dolphins and my research interests cover the areas of conservation, biology and behavioural ecology. I have been working as an independent ecologist in India and am currently involved in four projects on marine mammal ecology and conservation. I am interested in studying human–animal interactions in urban and wild areas, and in projects that require local community involvement in conservation. Sharks represent new research territory for me, but working in fishing communities provides a perfect opportunity to explore the relationship between people and the natural world.
SOSF project teams are based in two states on the west coast of India: Gujarat and Maharashtra. We have chosen landing sites so that at least two types of fishing gear are covered: gill nets and trawl nets.
We are lucky to have Dr Rima Jabado advising us and, most importantly, teaching us to identify sharks and rays. When we started out, I decided to invite as many students and researchers as possible to join us and be trained by Rima. I was thrilled to see so many of them interested to learn and be part of a shark research initiative, especially students from St Xaviers College, Bombay, who are helping Mayuresh and have taken it upon themselves to voluntarily assess landings and study shark biology over the weekends. It has been so satisfying to see this enthusiasm and interest in the younger generation. Back here in Gujarat, Alissa is leading volunteers and doing her Master’s thesis via our SOSF project. She has even managed to engage a young fisherman to collect data with us.
With this SOSF project I have entered territory that, for me, is uncharted –endless fishing vessels, overcrowded landing sites, the wondrous diversity of sea life, the enormous volume of catch and by-catch, the lives of fishermen and of women in charge of selling the catch, being offered chai while waiting in ankle-deep squid ink for the sharks to be offloaded. It is a glimpse of what I guess is the bigger picture: many perspectives that need to be understood.
Fishers face a huge range of problems, from a lack of fresh water to very low fish catch per unit effort, not to mention the substantial number of foreign and out-of-state fishing vessels carrying out large-scale fishing in Indian waters. At first the top-down conservation approach makes them wary of interacting with us, but then they see us in the squid ink and rotting muck, working away just like they do. We are connected by what we both need. Somewhere, somehow it’s a relationship that is working at the moment.
Identifying sharks is addictive, just like that crossword puzzle you can’t put aside on a Sunday morning.
Our SOSF project aims to answer a host of questions relating to India’s fishers and sharks. What are the different shark species landed and is there a seasonal variation in landings and life-history stages? Are there nursery grounds for different species off the Indian coastline? Is there a seasonal variation in breeding cycles across species? Do fishers know of these and can we collect data useful for sustainable fishing?
We also want to look at the impact of government policies. How successful are they? How do the fisher communities, buyers and suppliers interpret and perceive such policies? How do these policies reach ground level and what are the repercussions of them? Do Indian fishers ‘fin’ live sharks? Is there a target fishery for sharks, or was there in the past? What is the economic importance of sharks and shark products to stakeholders? How do fishers perceive any changes in fish and shark catch over the years?
I have seen sharks in the water only twice. Once it was a large tiger shark chasing a bottlenose dolphin in Shark Bay, Australia, and we were so relieved to see the rest of the pod arriving quickly enough to repel the shark! The next time was beneath a pink sunset off the coast of Orissa in eastern India, sitting on the top of a trawler after finishing a full day’s work. It was one of those unforgettable moments: a large whale shark surfaced right next to our boat, lingered, made us smile and then disappeared into the deep emerald green. Having spent most of my time at sea rejoicing every time dolphins in our focal pod succeeded in munching down nice fat mullets, spending time with fishers and working at fish landing sites is altogether a grounding experience. This project has been very interesting and enlightening, and our research team and volunteers wish to make it a long-term adventure. We hope that we can show our results to fishers, fishery unions and stakeholders in the supply chain of shark and shark products, and to hear from them how best we can sustain their livelihoods and at the same time manage our coastal and deep-sea diversity in the long term.