May 15, 2007

Whale shark in danger

THE SPECIAL REPORT: Veraval: caught in a net

Whale shark in danger

D P Bhattacharya

Ahmedabad, May 12: ONLY a few months ago, fishermen in the coastal areas of Gujarat had pledged never to kill the whale shark again. But their harpoons are out again and once more they are ready for the hunt. That they had once ripped open their nets to release the "big fish", they remember.

The cry of "save the whale shark" rings only somewhere in the distance, muffled by a dire need for money.

More than Rs 90 crore as diesel subsidy for boats has been lying pending with the Gujarat State Fisheries Department for three years now. Money, the fishermen say, they could use after they gave up hunting the whale shark, which was sure to fetch a high price in the market.

"We had promised Murari Bapu not to hunt the whale shark," says Jitubhai Kuhada, president of Veraval Samast Kharva Samaj. "But if the government does not take steps to improve our condition, we'll have to apologise to Bapu and begin killing whale sharks again," he says.

While earlier, fishermen could get diesel at subsidised rates, they have been getting the fuel at full market rate for the last three years now, says Kishan Varidum, president of Shree Akhil Gujarat Machhimar Khamandal and Shree Kharva Sanyukta Machhimar Boat Association. "We had been promised that we would be paid later," says Varidum.

"We are yet to get a part of the money for 2005-06 and the entire amount meant for 2006-07, which comes to Rs 91 crore," he says, "On paper, they have declared quite a few schemes, but none has percolated to the fishermen..."

"A whale shark fetches as much as Rs 1 lakh to 1.5 lakh. It is way more expensive for us to let it go. Once a whale shark is caught we have to go to a forest official for verification and then release it. This costs us more than Rs 30,000," says Vasram Solanki, president of Bedia Koli Samaj Boat Association. "The Forest department gives us Rs 25,000 to release a whale shark, but even that money takes a lot of time to come".

Meanwhile, sources claim that clandestine killing of whale sharks is still on. "A few sharks are being hunted even now, though discreetly. But gathering evidence is difficult," they say.

Says P N Roychoudhury, Principal Secretary, Forest and Environment: "We have rewarded a few fishermen, who cut their nets to release whale sharks. But if they find the reward inadequate, it is really unfortunate... If worse comes to worse, the department will intensify vigil along the coastline and tie up with Coast Guards to keep a tab on fishermen. Cases where sharks are harmed will be dealt with a firm hand."

Gujarat Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries Bhupendrasinh Chudasma assured that he will look into the matter of subsidy and expedite the release of money. "We want to pay them as early as possible but the money comes from the Centre," says Chudasma.

"There is nothing noble in being superior to some other person. True nobility comes from being superior to your previous self."

Hindu Proverb
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