MoEFCC okays Maharashtra’s proposal to study distribution, population of Arabian Sea humpback whales

Maharashtra is the third state along the country’s west coast, which will join the studies on the distribution and population of Arabian Sea humpback whales.

The initiative has already been undertaken by Karnataka and Goa, as part of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change’s (MoEFCC) endangered species recovery programme.

The MoEFCC said they had approved a proposal to support Maharashtra’s plans to use a combination of acoustic and visual monitoring methods to bridge the information gap for the whale species in the Indian waters. Maharashtra seeks to implement a community-based monitoring network to report sightings and strandings of such marine species.

“Maharashtra is the third state to have submitted its plan after Karnataka and Goa. Understanding more about this species is extremely important. We will be supporting the Maharashtra government in this project,” said Soumitra Dasgupta, additional director-general of forests (wildlife), MoEFCC.

“Arabian Sea humpback whale is a signature species, whose conservation is also being pursued by the International Whaling Commission (IWC),” he added.

IWC is a global body that looks into whale conservation. “The commission is appreciative of India’s efforts towards conservation of this particular species,” the IWC had said.

Earlier on August 7, the Maharashtra state board of wildlife (SBWL) had approved the proposal on Arabian Sea humpback whales following a report compiled by the Mangrove Cell.

The Maharashtra government had submitted its final proposal to MoEFCC on November 12.

“It is a good development, as emphasis is being laid on conservation of marine species. We are trying to protect those species that have not been in focus. We will be looking at many more such studies in a phase-wise manner,” said Nitin Kakodkar, principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) (wildlife), Maharashtra.

The state’s research programme has been proposed from December 2020 to October 2025, which is divided into five annual phases.

The first phase consists of determining seasonal occurrence patterns and habitat use of the species through passive acoustic monitoring (sound recorders). A visual survey along Angria bank — off the Malvan coast — will be undertaken along with genetic sample collection from stranded baleen whales for deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequencing over the next year.

The next phases will include long-term monitoring, vessel-based line transect survey with photo-identification exercises, and developing a network (stranding) of stakeholders, local community members, researchers and veterinarians.

Virendra Tiwari, additional principal chief conservator of forests (APCCF) (Mangrove Cell), said, “Our attempt is to understand the seasonal occurrence pattern of these whales based on the audio recordings. It will help determine critical hotspots for their breeding or feeding grounds along the Maharashtra coast. Continuous acoustic monitoring will help understand their communication behaviour and how they are affected by the noise of ships and seismic (oil) exploration in offshore areas.”

The total budget for the five-year project is around Rs6.12 crore, which will be shared by the Centre and the state government in a ratio of 60:40.

“Most of the research on this species has been carried out in Oman. This species has not been studied much in the Indian coastal waters and there have been sporadic records of their presence. There have also been some stranding incidents of this species on the western Indian coastline,” said Manas Manjrekar, deputy director, Mangrove Foundation.

In June 2018, Arabian Sea humpback whales were one of four species to be added to the recovery programme during the 49th meeting of the standing committee of national board of wildlife (NBWL), under the MoEFCC.

The ministry had requested all states to develop five-year action plans. Arabian Sea humpback whale was the 21st species, which was included in the plan, said Dasgupta.

The state government has proposed that this species of the whale’s population is likely to be less than 250 mature individuals.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission cetacean specialist group identified that a population estimation study — through identification by photograph – showed between 60 and 111 humpback whales along the Oman coast, which make their way during the winter towards warmer waters of India’s west coast.

According to the Arabian Sea Whale Network, the most recent sighting of the species was by scuba divers near Netrani Island off the Karnataka coast last December.

However, telemetry studies by the Environment Society of Oman have been regularly reporting Arabian Sea humpback whales crossing into Indian waters.

“Maharashtra’s bid to begin its studies on the whale species is heartening news. However, there has been a delay in the fieldwork because of the prevailing coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak. This has put a spanner in our works to compare whale songs between India and Oman,” said Dr Dipani Sutaria, a senior research fellow, who has undertaken extensive research into Arabian Sea humpback whales.

THREATS TO THE SPECIES

Humpback whales spotted along India’s west coast are part of the distinct Arabian Sea population. The species is considered to be the most isolated whale population in the world and recognised as non-migratory.

As per the IUCN Red List, the species is endangered and it is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

An adult whale ranges between 40 and 50 feet (ft) in length and weighs up to metric 30 tonnes. These whales can be found in the coastal waters along Yemen, Oman, Iran, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The species is recognised as a genetically isolated stock that is separated from other populations approximately 70,000 years ago.

Historical records show that this small isolated population was also subjected to whaling.

In 1966, Russian whaling ships in the Arabian Sea had caught 238 humpback whales within 10 days, out of these 164 (69%) were killed off the Gulf of Kutch, Gujarat, and another 12 (5%) were killed close to the Gulf of Khambhat.

Other threats to these species include: entanglement in fishing gears, strikes by ships, disturbance from vessel noise, and seismic surveys related to oil and natural gas exploration in offshore areas.

(Source: Maharashtra’s proposal to the Centre, IUCN)

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