Widespread overfishing is driving many shark species, including the world's largest living fish, the whale shark, to extinction, warn biologists. Its global status needs to be upgraded for protection and conservation.
India is among 121 nations that are home to this species with continuing global population declines. The major threats to it are fisheries catches, bycatch in nets and vessel strikes.
Now, the Philippines, Israel and Sri Lanka have jointly submitted a proposal for the inclusion of the whale shark, found in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, in Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) for its conservation.
The proposal has been listed in the agenda for the 12th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, to which India is also one of the signatories, to be held in Philippine capital Manila from October 23 to 28.
The proposal, accessed by IANS, demands the upgrading of the whale shark to a listing on Appendix I of the CMS as well as maintaining its existing Appendix II listing on account of its endangered conservation status and continuing population decline.
This will help improve protection and encourage global actions to address threats posed even by unsustainable tourism. It will also lead to increased attention to legislative protection in range states and heightened awareness on conservation requirements.
The proposal says prior to the protection of the whale shark -- a high-value catch -- in India in 2001 and in the Philippines in 1998, its meat was exported from these countries to Taiwan. Its meat from China was also thought to be illegally exported to Taiwan.
India-born Shaili Johri, who is a Postdoctoral Fellow with San Diego State University in California, said unregulated fishing of the whale shark off the Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala coasts is driving them to extinction.
"Whale sharks in India are found along the coast of south Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. While these sharks are protected in Gujarat, their poaching continues in other states in spite of their apparent protected status since 2001 by the Wildlife Act of India," she told IANS.
Hunting, unintended netting, ship strikes and pollution, mainly plastic and industrial waste, have been responsible for whale shark mortalities in India.
A targeted and comprehensive monitoring programme of all the species of the sharks in India needs to be undertaken in order to determine their breeding grounds, preferred habitats and food sources and their migration routes so as to establish marine sanctuaries and alter shipping lanes or designate low-speed zones for the ships, she told IANS via email.
In Gujarat, the state to which Johri belongs, where they are protected, it is of utmost importance to ensure proper compensation to fishing communities for their cooperation in conservation and monitoring and for any losses incurred due to net entangling.
"Without support from the fishing community, whale shark conservation in Gujarat is at risk of getting derailed," she added.
A 2016 reassessment of the species' global conservation status for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classified the whale shark as globally endangered due to an overall population size reduction of greater than or equal to 50 per cent.
In the Indo-Pacific, a population reduction of 63 per cent is inferred over the past 75 years and in the Atlantic a population reduction of more than 30 per cent is inferred, says the proposal.
"We propose that the whale shark should be upgraded to a listing on Appendix I of CMS. The whale shark meets the criteria for an Appendix I listing due to the species' clear migratory habit and their global endangered status on the IUCN Red List," the proposal added.