Ask any scuba-diver what they’d most like to witness at close-hand, and the majority will answer: whale shark. I’ve been diving for a few years now and still haven’t seen a whale shark – the world’s largest fish, and slow-moving plankton-eating filter feeder that can grow to 12 metres (40 feet) and weigh upto 21 tonnes.
Their rarity and status as ‘scuba-gold’ is down to two main factors – they remain deep in the oceans for months rarely rising towards the surface; and they are a threatened species.
Since 2004, a fascinating global programme, in which ‘citizen scientists’ – ordinary people worldwide – identify new sharks and post photographs on an online library, has proved to be a major milestone in both science and conservation of these wonderfully graceful creatures.
Named ECOCEAN, this rather special project tracks individual whale sharks around the world’s oceans using a web-based photo-ID library, cataloging each whale shark’s unique “bodyprint” – identified by the left and right side spot patterns above their pectoral fins.
Researchers and eco-tourists submit images, which are logged revealing a picture of whale shark movements and behaviour. Last month, the 1000th whale shark, a 6.5-metre (19-feet) male, was recently reported by a marine biologist in Mozambique.
By naturally tagging these most gentle of animals, valuable data helps not only determine their numbers and migration patterns, but also to identify critical breeding and feeding grounds which must be urgently protected. Building a better understanding of this threatened species will help save the largest fish in the ocean from extinction.
But it’s not only the whale shark that’s in danger. Every year, tens of millions of sharks suffer painful deaths to supply the cruel and wasteful shark fin trade. Fins are used in ‘delicacy’ dishes such as shark fin soup, which maybe served by Chinese restaurants and during banquets, weddings and other events.
And tragically, the global shark fin trade in now approaching its annual peak with next month’s Chinese New Year.
Sharks’ fins are often removed when the animals are still alive; the sharks are then thrown back into the water to endure a painful death from suffocation, blood loss, or predation by other species.
By keeping only the fins and throwing away the bodies, boat crews aren’t hampered by space constraints. This means that massive numbers of sharks are caught and finned to supply the unsustainable shark fin trade.
Despite alarming declines in shark populations, hundreds of tons of shark fins will be changing hands this Chinese New Year for astronomical prices, as restaurants and hotels stock up to meet anticipated demand for the upcoming celebrations.
This horrific, brutal and backwards practice is a travesty on nature that must stop; as rapidly disappearing numbers of these beautiful living beings, who also feel pain, will sickeningly change the whole ocean ecosystem forever.
For more information visit www.whaleshark.org