Whale shark a wake-up call

Whale shark a wake-up call

The fate of an unlucky whale shark -- believed to be pregnant -- that became entangled in a Thai fishing trawler's nets about a fortnight ago remains unknown.

What we do know is the 7-tonne fish was drawn onto the boat, which is a big no-no for any fishermen who accidentally catch such a rare and protected species.

The story made headlines when a diver shared a clip he made after accidentally encountering the trawler, Sang Samut 3, near an island off Phuket on May 18.

From the clip, which angered many members the Thai public, the creature was in dire straits as she was non-responsive and her skin had lost its shininess, as she was seen tied to the trawler's mast. Considering her injuries, some academics said she had zero chance of surviving.

The crew finally released her back into the ocean -- after the group of divers complained vigorously about the situation -- and she has not been seen since.

As expected, the story drew a knee-jerk reaction from Thai authorities.

A frantic search for the whale shark by the Marine and Coastal Resources Department has also apparently failed. It filed charges against 17 people aboard the trawler and temporarily suspended its operations pending the results of an ongoing investigation.

In a bid to defend himself and those on board, the captain claimed neither he nor his crew had the faintest idea there was a 7-tonne fish trapped in its net.

If they had, they would never have hauled it up, he said, but conservationists remain sceptical.

In a media interview, Jatuporn Buruspat, head of the Marine and Coastal Resources Department, said the actions of the trawler crew were not acceptable.

"I was shocked to see the picture [of a whale shark being dangled from the mast]. I don't want to believe fishermen would dare commit such an act," he told the media.

The official said the crew had breached several laws, overseen by his agency and the Department of Fisheries.

If found guilty, they could face a fine of between 300,000 baht and 3 million baht and quite possibly have to serve a jail term.

Mr Jatuporn, while citing the need to improve local conservation efforts, also mentioned the restrictions his agency faces in such tasks.

More importantly, Mr Jatuporn admitted that improper fishing methods are a major cause of deaths and injuries of rare, endangered species like dolphins and other aquatic life in Thai waters.

At least one sea cow and two dolphins have washed up on Thai beaches in the first five months of this year, and all three deaths were linked to fishing operations.

The female whale shark is merely the latest and possibly the saddest example of this scourge given how brutally she was treated.

The creature would have had a higher chance of survival if the crew had not breached the code of conduct for responsible fisheries and immediately released her back into the sea.

At the very least, this should serve as a wake-up call.

The crew members, particular the captain of the Sang Samut 3, deserve the maximum punishment available. This would set an example for others.

Meanwhile the Coastal and Marine Department, as well as the Department of Fisheries, need to streamline their efforts, close all loopholes, and strengthen the ability of local groups to carry out conservation efforts.

Public education about the need to save endangered species is also necessary.

And priority must be given to make sure such a sad incident as this is not repeated.

The news of the whale shark also comes at a crucial time.

Thailand will join the rest of the international community in celebrating Ocean Day in a few weeks' time under the theme of "Healthy Oceans, Healthy Lives".

But the country will have little to celebrate if such issues as these are not quickly addressed.

Editorial

Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : ploenpotea@bangkokpost.co.th

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