Posing with the carcass of an endangered whale shark, a fisherman on a trawler grins and makes a peace sign while holding up one of the dead fish’s fins, in an image that caused outrage when it circulated online over the weekend.
However, an official on Sunday claimed the fishermen had caught the ocean’s largest fish accidentally and that it was already dead when they hauled it onto their boat.
A series of photographs posted to Facebook by Marine Conservation Cambodia founding director Paul Ferber on Friday shows fishermen hacking off the fins and then having their photos taken alongside the carcass. It’s not clear when the pictures were taken.
“This is what IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] trawlers are doing in the Cambodian Ocean, not only are they destroying habitats and catching endangered turtles, but they are also catching and hacking up endangered whale sharks,” Mr. Ferber wrote alongside the post.
“I hope we can see photos on [Facebook] of the relevant authorities arresting these idiots,” he added.
Mr. Ferber could not be reached on Sunday.
His post was shared more than 300 times and attracted dozens of comments, including one from Ouk Vibol, director of Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration fisheries conservation department.
Reached by telephone on Sunday, Mr. Vibol said he had spoken to a man on Facebook who claimed to know the fishermen and alleged no laws were broken.
Mr. Vibol’s source—a man he identified as Leap Koun, who initially posted the photos to Facebook before later taking them down—had told him the fish had died before being unintentionally caught in the trawler’s net in waters off Koh Tang island.
“Based on our communications and investigation, the whale shark died before it was caught. I think maybe it was very old, because it was very big,” said Mr. Vibol, adding that the fishermen had estimated the size of their catch as being 10 meters long and weighing up to a ton. The WWF states that fully grown whale sharks grow up to 12 meters and weigh 11 tons.
“They cut only the fins and released the body into the water,” Mr. Vibol added.
Mr. Vibol said he was unable to determine the veracity of his source’s claims, but that an investigation was ongoing.
Whale sharks are categorized as an endangered species under Cambodia law. The fish are highly prized for their oil and meat.
Meanwhile, dozens of Cambodian fishermen gathered outside the Kampot Provincial Hall on Friday calling on officials to take action against illegal fishermen.
Neak Sen, head of the Kampot fishermen’s committee, said his members are frustrated by Vietnamese fishermen who often arrive in large, high-powered vessels and use high-tech methods, devastating fish stocks.
“The illegal fishing tools destroy all kinds of fish. Now we don’t see dolphins in our sea anymore,” Mr. Sen said.
Correction: Earlier version of this article misspelled Mr. Paul Ferber’s name – founding director of Cambodia Marine Conservation.