Protection is good. Thanks to a new conservation pact signed by multiple countries, whale sharks, known scientifically as Rhincodon typus, are now protected in any open waters for which they migrate to. Although they generally migrate in warm and temperate waters, the diaspora of a whale shark can be somewhat difficult to determine. Whale sharks are shy by nature. As such, their migration efforts are a bit ambiguous and not fully understood today. It is for this reason that they are now being protected, as the scientific community wants to understand these beautiful creatures more. Among the many countries making a commitment to the protection of whale sharks from hunting activity are Peru, Mozambique, and Tanzania.
Once considered vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, whale sharks were recently upgraded to the endangered status which largely contributed to the newly signed pact. In 2011, former U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act. It is illegal to hunt or catch a whale shark in U.S. waters.
What The New Protection Means
Whale sharks are among the most hunted fish in the world. As they enjoy migration in many waters, they are an easy target for hunters. The new protection in place protects them from being hunted in and around various waters and also protects their migration efforts.
Scientists have long tried to fathom the migration of whale sharks. Through tagging, it has been determined that while coming together in groups for feedings, whale sharks generally stay far from being spotted especially in the winter and spring months. For hunters, this is the thrill of the sport. If a whale shark or group of whale sharks come out for a feeding frenzy, they can easily be monetized. With new provisions in place, even when spotted, hunters must refrain from killing or otherwise injuring the animal, lest international laws prevail.
Fishermen who hunt tuna for example are also placed under these new laws. Whale sharks feed in an odd fashion, opening their massive jaws wide and gulping virtually everything in sight as they roam about near the ocean’s surface. When fishermen hunt tuna, they use FAD, a man-made device that attracts fish to a specific area. Tuna are known for being attracted to whale sharks in a similar fashion and will often swim underneath a whale shark. Fishermen noticed this attraction and modified FAD devices to not only catch the tuna, but the whale fish too. The new pact would virtually make such practices obsolete. Additionally, all fisheries which use widescale netting and other FAD practices must now be cognizant of inadvertently catching whale sharks too.
The Commodity of Whale Sharks
Whale sharks have no real threat other than man. Known for their docile nature, the largest fish in the ocean as an adult can weigh up to 20 tons or 41,000lbs and can get as long as a school bus. Not too many other fish in the ocean can put up a fight against a mammoth like that. And yet, each year they are feverishly hunted in ruthless fashion. The oil from the giant shark’s liver is one target which in turn is sold and used for oil supplements. Additionally, their meat and fins are used in cuisines and their skin is often used to manufacture clothing or accessories.
In 2014, a non-governmental agency conducted a report which exposed factories in China that hunt and sell upwards of 600 whale sharks a year. This was alarming to say the least given that the country has international laws in place protecting the elusive species. While some of the sharks migrate into Chinese waters from places as far away as Indonesia or Mexico, the conversation pact means it won’t matter what waters they come from: hunting them is strictly prohibited.
Today’s Whale Shark
Sadly, the whale shark has decreased in population and their numbers are in the thousands. Their lifespan is similar to that of humans -- 60-100 years. That means reproduction most commonly occurs between the ages of 25-30 years. They are hunted well before this age however, reducing the possibility of mating and decreasing their population. Much of this of course is speculation since very little is known about the mating process. What we do know is they play an important role in our ecosystem. As mentioned previously, whale sharks when feeding extend their jaws wide and eat much of what is in sight. This is actually good for the ocean, as it is very likely they eliminate weak species and assist in the conservation of the food chain within ocean waters. In a nutshell, whale sharks are top predators, meaning they don’t have other predators who prey upon them and they help to keep the population of smaller fish in check.
If these magnificent creatures’ population is compromised, we may never know the full extent of their capabilities and their worth to the oceans of the earth.