October 24, 2013

Top 10 Whale Shark Facts & Why They’re Worth Saving. {Bonus: Video}

Whale sharks are fascinating—yet they’re still being hunted despite their label as a “vulnerable” species, with fishing being banned in many different countries.

Image: A boy stands on a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) that’s being towed by fisherman along the coast of the eastern Java Island on Oct 22, 2013. Although whale shark hunting is banned in many countries, some areas of Asia still continue to fish for this vulnerable (and gentle) species.

Unfortunately, the concern for the whale sharks’ demise is not an old and stale problem.

First, let’s look at 10 awesome whale shark facts:

  1. The whale shark is the world’s largest fish, growing to over 12.65 meters (40 ft). 
  2. It’s a shark (remember—it’s the largest “fish”). It breathes with gills and has cartilage rather than bone. “The name “whale shark” comes from the shark’s large size, which rivals some species of whales, and also because the shark is a filter feeder, like baleen whales.” 
  3. Whale sharks are unusual because they feed on plankton and are not a top predator.
  4. Whale sharks have “gray skin polka-dotted with pale yellow spots and stripes. The spots and patterns are like a fingerprint, unique to each individual, and are helpful to scientists in counting populations and tracking individual sharks.” 
  5. Whale sharks don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 30-years old, but some scientists think that they can live for over 100 years, with the average lifespan estimated at 70 years.
  6. “Despite their huge size, whale sharks are docile, filter feeders that cruise the world’s oceans looking for plankton. These gentle giants are famous for their annual gathering at WA’s Ningaloo Reef, but outside these waters very little is known about this threatened species, which is considered as globally vulnerable.”
  7.  Whale sharks seemingly swim in random directions after feeding, and they can travel for thousands of miles, diving up to a mile deep. 
  8. They like to live alone and they like to live in open water.
  9. They are “known as a deity in a Vietnamese culture, the whale shark is called Ca Ong, which literally translates as Sir Fish.” 
  10. “Whale sharks’ far-flung migrations mean that protecting this rare and threatened species will require international collaboration. Whale sharks’ large size, slow speed, and habit of swimming near the surface makes them easy targets for fishermen, who hunt the whale shark for its flesh, liver oil, cartilage, and fins. The species is only protected in a few more than a dozen of the 100 countries’ waters it is known to visit.”

Since whale sharks are docile and found in tropical waters, they have become hot tourist attractions for scuba divers and snorkelers.

Wikipedia notes that in “Thailand, Belize, Utila, and the Yucatan Peninsula (Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres), numerous scuba diving and snorkeling tour operators depend on whale sharks for their livelihood. Healthy populations of the giant fish draw tens of thousands of visitors annually, all hoping to swim with the whale sharks, and these travelers contribute substantially to the local economies in these locations. For example, the aggregation off the Yucatan Peninsula lasts for most of the summer season. Throughout that period, 25 to 100 tour operator boats, each carrying 6 to 18 passengers, will visit the feeding grounds on a daily basis. These travelers stay in hotels in the Cancun and Cozumel region, or on Isla Holbox or Isla Mujeres, and eat in restaurants in the same areas.”

Still, in some locations, whale sharks continue to be found with their fins hacked off, left to die.

Filipinos have hunted whale sharks for decades, the waters off Bohol, Misamis Oriental and Sorsogon were once fishing grounds for butanding hunters. Shark fins and meat are usually exported to China, Hongkong and Taiwan. Whale shark flesh, called ‘Tofu meat’ sells for roughly $8 per kilogramme, while dried shark fins are valued a hundred times more – approximately $800 per kilogramme…

Whale sharks are now classified by the IUCN as vulnerable and are protected by Philippine law under Republic Act 8550 and Fisheries Administrative Order 193. The possession or slaughter of a single whale shark merits a maximum jail term of four years, coupled with a large fine and the cancellation of the offending party’s fishing licenses. Whale sharks accidentally caught in fishing gear must be immediately released, while whale sharks which have drifted to shore must be surrendered to the nearest BFAR office. Manta rays (Manta birostris) are also covered by the order.” 

Whale sharks are a sad and dangerous example of how unnecessary and greedy human consumption can harm both an ecosystem and an entire species. Even the tourism connected with these sharks is potentially harmful.

According to WWF, “Whale sharks are highly valued on international markets. Demand for their meat, fins and oil remains a threat to the species, particularly by unregulated fisheries. They are victims of bycatch, the accidental capture of non-target species in fishing gear. And whale shark tourism presents a threat to the species as it can interrupt their feeding and sharks can be injured by boat propellers.” 

However, this doesn’t have to be the case.

The WWF, for example is active in helping the tourist trade and whale sharks thrive together.

“Donsol Bay, Philippines, attracts huge numbers of whale sharks because of the high levels of plankton found in its water. WWF has helped with whale shark tourism there since 1998. We continue to work to ensure whale sharks stay safe during the frequent interactions they have with people and tour boats.

As whale shark tourism is very popular in Mexico, we educate tourists on codes of conduct for swimming with sharks. We also raise awareness with tour boat operators about the movements of sharks, which has resulted in fewer boat collisions with the animals.”

Another active organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, has a project that works towards better regulations of shark fisheries.

“Shark fisheries have expanded in size and number around the world since the mid-1980s to meet the rapidly rising demand for shark fins, meat, and cartilage. Most of these fisheries are unregulated and undocumented. As a result, numerous shark species now face extinction. WCS is working to improve regulation of the global trade in shark products to reverse the decline of these remarkable fishes.”

And I know that issues like those surrounding whale sharks might seem rather unimportant, considering that we all have daily lives filled with obstacles and more pressing and immediate concerns. At the same time, though, if we don’t teach our children compassion for all living things and for the world in which they live, then what kind of world are we preparing them for?

And showing our children that compassionate action is effective and worthwhile is helping to raise compassionate and active future adults.

Visit WWF’s website to find out what you can do to get involved. 

And visit the WCSs website here

Bonus: Watch Dr. Simon Pierce, co-founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation, explain why whale sharks are so important.

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Ed: Sara Crolick


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