Caught in the net

The recent ban on shark hunting is only a partial victory for the conservationists. To make it a success, better networking between the coastal authorities and fisherfolk is essential. Biswajit Mohanty , president of Wildlife Society Of Orissa (WSO) talks to Ahir Bhairab Borthakur on the complications in saving these marine creatures often described as "tigers of the seas"

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Why has a ban been imposed on shark hunting in particular?
Sharks have a vital role in the marine ecosystem since they are the apex predator at the top of the marine food chain. But today they are almost extinct, being a major target of the fish hunters. Their slow breeding process is another factor contributing to the rapid decline in shark population. Many countries like Finland, Taiwan, Thailand, Philippines and China, realising their endangered status, have already clamped a ban on shark hunting. In India, the situation is particularly alarming as there is a mass-scale hunting by fish traders who have an eye on big profit margins.

Will this ban work?
It is too early to give a conclusive reply to this question. Even the enforcement agencies like the forest department and the police are not fully aware of the recent move. There has been no effort so far by either the Union or the state government wildlife offices to highlight the latest ban and to instruct the field officers on its enforcement. Not a single case of shark hunting or trade has been lodged to date though thousands of these fish are caught almost every day on the Orissa coast. We have been urging the chief wildlife warden of Orissa to implement the law and are hopeful of a major crackdown on shark hunting. I sincerely believe this ban will work and at least 80 per cent of the trade will cease.

Certain sections are alleging that the ban has been imposed in an arbitrary manner. Comment.
Trading is one part and conservation is another. I think this a non-issue. Government has taken a decision to ban shark hunting by considering the serious situation.

If the poaching vessels are the main culprits, then shouldn't the existing laws be enough?
The existing laws do not include a provision that makes hunting of shark in India illegal. A ban will make the issue more specific.

How effective will this ban be in curbing hunting along Orissa coast?
The ban can solve the problem of shark hunting on the coastline of Orissa to a large extent. Since it is relatively easy to check vehicles and trains for transportation of shark and its products, it will bring an end to the open trade through rail and road transport. However, there will be some problem with respect to the foreign trawlers and fishing boats from nearby states, which regularly fish within the coastal waters of Orissa. Patrolling of the high seas would also curb the offshore trade.

How badly will this ban affect the livelihood of the coastal fisherfolk, particularly in Orissa?
Shark hunting is basically an organised activity and local fisherfolk do not get the real market value if they catch these fish. Rampant hunting of shark is taking place only because of a high demand for shark fins in the overseas market. Dubai and Singapore control the largest share of the shark market and the contribution comes from all over the world through organised fishing. It is not a common practice among the local fisherfolk. Though some sections are saying that these ignorant fisherfolk can still catch the shark unknowingly, I am sure that a fisherman knows how to differentiate between shark and other fish. In Orissa, the situation is quite normal among the local folk, but surely the big traders are unhappy.

You had recently commented that sharks might become extinct on the Orissa coast if hunting continues. What is the prevailing situation ?
Orissa coast is currently a happy hunting ground for fisherfolk not only from our own villages, but also from Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. During peak season, groups of motorised fishing boat operators from these states temporarily camp on the Orissa beaches. While hunting for shark, no distinction is made between the young ones and the adult. Baby sharks, measuring barely one foot in length, are currently being caught by these fisherfolk. Every day, at least one or two wagonloads of sharks are dispatched to Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Chennai. The most important shark fishing base is Puri in Orissa. Paradeep, Jagatsinghpur and Balasore districts are the other major hubs of shark trade in the state. There are big traders here who regularly procure and stock the fins from the shark hunters. Shark fins, as well as its intestines and liver, are sold are sold here for a huge amount. A large-sized shark, weighing between 50 to 70 kg, can fetch up to Rs 40,000. Do you think hunting of shark is rampant in Orissa only?
Sharks are hunted throughout the country. The situation is particulary bad in the Andaman Islands since poachers from Myanmar and Thailand illegally fish in these waters and have totally depleted the shark population. In Orissa also, shark hunting has started in a big way with fisherfolk from West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala coming here in the last five years following a rapid decimation of its population in their own states. Shark fin is in great demand for its use as shark fin soup, which is a gourmet dish in many fancy restaurants. These fins can be preserved for years and so there are a number of international traders who are now stocking them up in Singapore and Dubai. The entire Indian consignment of these fin lands in the hand of these traders. Since many countries have already banned shark trade, there is a sudden rise in demand here and consequently the price of fins has gone up, which explains this mad rush for sharks.

Has the state authority taken any steps to implement fishing regulation for the fishing boats?
The fisheries department in Orissa is poorly managed and ill-equipped to handle the current situation. It has only a couple of old and dilapidated patrol trawlers to keep vigil on the 480-km-long coastline. The depth of their sincerity can be gauged from the fact that though the Union government had given them Rs one crore three years ago to procure a patrol vessel, the boat is still under construction in a Goa shipyard. The Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, 1982 is the primary legislation for regulation and control of sea fishing in the Orissa coast. However, this act is never implemented. Fishing licenses are issued much in excess of the carrying capacity of the coast. A study had earlier estimated that a maximum of 700 trawlers could be allowed to be licensed to fish in Orissa. However, during the peak fishing season of winter, one can find nearly 3,000 trawlers, many of them coming even within the prohibited zone of 10 kms from the coast. Trawlers also fish within the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary. Since December 1997, the fisheries department has made the use of turtle extruder device (tad) mandatory for all fishing trawlers, failing which their licenses are to be cancelled. However, till date not a single trawler has used a tad . Nor for that matter has anybody's license been cancelled on this account. The Orissa coast is the most unregulated fishing area in the entire country and the time is fast approaching when there will be a total collapse of marine fisheries due to sheer over fishing and lack of regulation.

What is the level of awareness among the fisherfolk?
There are many issues, which concern fisherfolk. However, at present there is a total lack of knowledge about the latest legislation regarding the ban of shark hunting and trade since nobody has carried out any awareness programme so far. We have started an awareness campaign in a small way by printing and distributing some posters in Oriya with pictures and information on shark conservation.

In your view how should the authority work to make this ban a success?
The authority should convene meetings of fisherfolk associations and explain to them the ecological benefit of sharks and how their population has plummeted in the recent years. They should make them understand that with the extinction of sharks, they might suffer a total fall in shrimp population and hence it is ultimately their livelihood that is at stake. In order to curb shark hunting, priority should be to tackle the trade and the traders who are a handful. Once they are identified, a close watch should be kept on them and the illegal trade they try to carry out in shark fin and other products. Fish consignments, which are dispatched outside the state in rail or trucks (since sharks are rarely consumed in Orissa), should be checked for sharks or their body parts. Off-shore patrols should be carried out during the shark season, particularly to catch the boats entering from other states and countries. For this, there should be a close co-ordination with Coast Guards. Lastly, guards should be posted at fishing bases during this season to keep a vigil on shark landings.

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