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Whale Sharks Finally Receive International Protection

Whale Sharks Finally Receive International Protection

Newsroom

The largest fish swimming in the world’s oceans have at last received international protection from the international tuna purse seine fishing industry in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO).

Whale sharks are already classified as vulnerable by CITES, but they’re still killed so their fins can be turned into soup, their skin into leather, and their oils into cosmetics and medicine. (Photo from: Thinkstock)

Whale sharks are already classified as vulnerable by CITES, but they’re still killed so their fins can be turned into soup, their skin into leather, and their oils into cosmetics and medicine.
(Photo from: Thinkstock)

Whale sharks can weigh as much as 40,000 pounds and grow to 40 feet in length. They are mostly solitary and nomadic, spending much of their lives wandering the high seas alone. This makes them difficult to study and little is known about them.

What we do know is that these are gentle animals and many a lucky diver has swum alongside them without fear of harm. Whale sharks prefer great quantities of zooplankton and small fish like sardines and anchovies to humans. The sharks use their colossal mouths, which are nearly five-feet in diameter, to siphon plankton, small fish, and larvae as they swim through the ocean. Being filter feeders, they pose no danger to divers.

But it’s the whale shark’s enormous size and docile nature that has allowed them to be exploited in a strange and often deadly manner.

Commercial fishermen have for a long time capitalized on the fact that tuna, along with many other species of fish, like to gather around objects drifting on the ocean surface. To attract tuna and other fish to a concentrated area, fishermen often build floating structures known as fish-aggregating devices (FADs). The dense shoals of fish then become much easier prey for the fishermen who trap them in huge purse seine nets.

The problem is that whale sharks are so enormous that they naturally attract tuna and other species in exactly the same way as a FAD, allowing fishermen to deploy nets around a whale shark to capture any fish attracted by the shark. In too many instances, the encircled whale shark also became trapped in the net resulting in serious injury or death.

In response to this threat, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) has adopted a resolution prohibiting the placement of a purse seine net around whale sharks and requiring that, in the event that a net inadvertently encircled a whale shark, the shark must be released unharmed.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has endorsed the resolution and issued its own regulations prohibiting the practice by the U.S. fleet operating in the EPO, even though this kind of “setting” on whale sharks is not a method used by U.S. tuna fishing vessels. These regulations ensure that the U.S. is meeting its obligations under the IATTC resolution.

Chris Fanning, a fishery policy analyst with NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region who helped draft the regulations and has himself swum with whale sharks said,
“These are some of the most incredible animals in the ocean, and while U.S. fishing vessels don’t engage in this practice, we are very supportive of this international resolution to help protect these amazing creatures.”

The added protection of this legislation is welcome news for those who wish to see these wonderful animals survive in our oceans. Though the skin of an adult whale shark is up to 5 inches thick and protects it from predators, it is no protection against human depredation.

The Coral Triangle region is a feeding ground for whale sharks attracted by the abundant plankton. Twenty-two species of dolphin and endangered dugongs are other residents of the Coral Triangle. They share this marine haven with Bryde’s whales, short-finned pilot whales, three species of sperm whale, humpback whales, Cuvier’s and Blainville’s beaked whales and the world’s least studied cetacean – the Longman’s beaked whale.

(Read the original story at redorbit.com.)

Avatar of Coral Triangle Written by Coral Triangle

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