ABU DHABI // The sight of a whale shark is normally a happy event for diving instructor Jeffrey Catanjjal and his customers.
But seeing one of the world’s largest fish on Friday morning at Dhadna Port fishermen’s loading areas brought anything but joy.
“It was just lying there and the divers were upset to see it on the ramp like that,” said Mr Catanjjal, who photographed the five-metre juvenile and talked to the crew who had brought it to the Fujairah shore.
While whale sharks are protected under local and international law and fishing them is illegal, the fishermen had brought it in after they found it tangled in their net that morning.
“They spoke very little English,” said Mr Catanjjal. “They said it was alive and moving when they found it and they decided to pull it out.”
The photos show the animal sustained serious cuts before its death, indicating the severity of its struggle to free itself, said Jonathan Ali Khan, a Dubai wildlife filmmaker and activist who was shown the pictures.
Mr Catanjjal could not say whether the crew knew they were breaching a federal law.
“It is legal to use this type of net and it had been in the right place for fishermen to put their nets but they have a responsibility to protect endangered marine life,” he said.
He said that if he had he been called while the animal was still alive, he could have helped try to free it.
Friday’s incident came two months after the same whale shark was seen by divers in Oman’s Daymaniyat Islands marine reserve.
The identification was made on Tuesday by David Robinson, a whale shark researcher in Dubai who has a database of images of the animals seen in the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.
Mr Robinson was able to identify it by looking at its unique spot pattern.
Behind the gills and above the pectoral fin on either side of each whale shark, the pattern is like a human fingerprint and is used by researchers to identify the creatures, giving valuable information about their movements.
“The removal of these animals from the regional population at this rate is unsustainable, even if they are caught accidentally,” wrote Mr Robinson on the Sharkwatch Arabia Facebook page.
He said that while the incident was “very sad”, it showed how important it was to maintain a database of whale shark sightings.
“What I am trying to build is a population assessment and the more pictures we have, the more we will know about the movement of these animals,” Mr Robinson said.
He urged people who saw whale sharks to upload pictures or verbal accounts on www.sharkwatcharabia.com.
With the help of the Ministry of Environment and Water, Mr Robinson is also collecting tissue samples from the dead whale shark.
The samples could help him understand what the animal was eating, yield data on marine pollution and help to understand how they age.
For Mr Khan, the incident shows the need to educate people working in the fishing industry of the need to protect rare marine life.
“To me, this story is about how flawed our information system is and how little information is reaching the people who need it,” he said.
“These people are just trying to make a living and it is not easy what they do and if they do not know any better … we cannot criticise them.”
The ministry said hunting a whale shark or trading in its parts could incur fines of up to Dh30,000 or lead to three months in jail.
It was not clear whether the fishermen would face penalties.
“Awareness campaigns are ongoing to ensure fishermen can identify the various species of sharks that are protected under UAE law,” the ministry said.
“The UAE has also signed several agreements and conventions to work hand in hand with international organisations and member states to protect such endangered species and conserve biodiversity.”