Working with the environment and nature conservation can be a challenging and interesting experience, and each one of us has a unique yet ironically universal story waiting to be shared. Your story can inspire someone, build connections to like-minded people in similar situations, or just bring a smile to someone’s face.
Humans of Conservation is a segment started by the Conservation Optimism India team to capture the moments of joy and sorrow, hardships and successes and overall experiences in our world of conservation. We want to provide a platform for every voice to be heard. It is these stories we believe that will cumulatively make a positive impact for nature and for people’s lives. The following blog is a part of this initiative.
Tales of Marauders from Malvan
Malvan – a place of scenic beauty with the silent evening breeze and roaring waves where one can find peace and people with golden hearts. In short, a perfect place to get away from city life. I was lucky enough to stay there for 6 months.
Malvan is a small fishing town in southern Maharashtra on India’s west coast and holds a special place in my heart as it was my breakthrough in the field of research. I was employed as a Project Assistant with Dakshin Foundation in November 2019 to work in Malvan on sharks. Locally known as the ‘marauders’ they are some of my favourite species. Our project was about monitoring shark and ray fisheries and also identifying potential nursery grounds.
My work involved sampling sharks and rays every day at the fish auction. The auction is a daily event where the catch from different vessels such as shore seines, gillnets and trawlers are brought to the beach and sold to traders (including local women), tourists and locals. I was excited to start sampling; for until that moment I had only seen a few shark and ray species, like the Spadenose shark and the Bamboo shark. It was now time to find other species that I had seen only on television.
The first shark we encountered was a bamboo shark, but soon we spotted a spotted eagle ray – a new species for me. It was one of the most exciting days of my life, filled with emotions that are hard to describe.
I spent my childhood watching exciting shows on the Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel. These sparked my interest in animals and the environment. Marine life always made the list and encouraged by my close friend, Pranay Sawant, I completed my Master’s in marine biology. It was during my Masters that I discovered my interest in sharks and rays. The fact that they are one of the top predators fascinated me.
My love for fish as a cuisine boosted my interest in fisheries and fish biology. Yet my connection with fisheries traces back to my family owed ice-factory in Alibag, my hometown. They made ice, which was supplied to fishing vessels for storing fish during their journey.
As days in Malvan progressed into weeks and then into months, we came across some fascinating scenes from the auction which are hard to express in words. I remember taking measurements one day when some auctioneers started calling my name “aare ky te chote chote mori cha map ghetto tikde bagh ek mothi mori ali aahe” – “Why are you measuring those small sharks? Come here quickly, there’s a big shark here!” A ‘big’ shark catch in Malvan was usually 2-3 feet long, so I was quite surprised to see this 8-foot-long fish. It was a female Common Blacktip shark – one of my favourite species. I was thrilled to see such a big shark but was also sad because I didn’t want to see such a beautiful creature in this way.
There were more days like this when we saw fascinating sharks and rays, including an 8 feet bull shark, a juvenile tiger shark and gravid eagle rays with pups in their bellies. However, I felt more sad than happy after seeing them. People don’t understand that sharks and rays need to be protected as they are important for marine ecosystems; they help maintain fish populations. Sharks are hunted for their infamous fins, which are treated as a delicacy by some countries. Due to a rise in the demand for fins, these animals have been slaughtered mercilessly over the years, pushing them onto the verge of extinction.
On the other hand, sharks are also a cheap source of food for local people. As a passionate fish eater who can’t imagine a meal without fish, I understand the value of sharks and rays as food, but it needs to be balanced with conservation. I am optimistic about their conservation here because after working closely with the fishing community I realised that they are very much aware of the current situation and problems that the fisheries sector faces. I believe they will change and adopt more sustainable practices with proper guidance and some encouragement from the government.
While sampling during the auction, several tourists interacted with me, asking me what I was doing. When I told them it was measuring sharks, their reactions were priceless. They would say “do we really have sharks here in our waters?”.
People don’t realise that sharks are gentle giants and will only attack if provoked. They often think of sharks as voracious predators and say “aare baapre kaatega” – “Oh god, they’ll bite you!”, thanks to movies that have induced fear in their minds. I would like to change this perception and make people see sharks and rays through our vision. I hope that there is a change in the perception of sharks in the minds of the tourists whom I have interacted with.
I enjoyed my sampling days in Malvan and often miss them. I miss working in a crowded auction with the loud noises of fisherwomen, tourists and auctioneers, all who would often scold me for taking measurements. The fisherfolk slowly became my friends, which made sampling a lot easier. Once the auctioneers found out that I ate fish, they would sometimes offer me fresh fish free of cost, while at other times they would share different recipes for cooking fish. In a matter of weeks, some of them had become my closest friends. Some fisherwomen also developed a soft spot for me and would help me with my sampling. The community became my ‘extended family’, and I never felt alone in Malvan.
India has been on lockdown for more than a month now. I have been stationed at Malvan for the past 45 days and it doesn’t feel so bad. Even in the lockdown, my friends at Malvan called to check on me, an act that touched my heart. All the more, I’ve been reading books and research papers, attending online sessions of various topics, and cooking interesting dishes to pass my time here.
Malvan will be always close to my heart. It was a really good experience working here and it has taught me that sustainable fishing practices can be achieved for the conservation of sharks and rays. More than this, Malvan has shown me that working in conservation is not just about the species, but also about people, perception, culture and mutual respect.