Maybe it has something to do with their size. Is that why we love whales and whale sharks? Certainly, there is a majesty and grace to the way they move, maybe it’s because they also seem to be gentle, although whales can certainly be aggressive when they need to be. But whale sharks seem gentle, curious and big all at the same time. They get my vote for my favorite fish on International Whale Shark Day – then again there are sea horses.
August 30, International Whale Shark Day
But back to whale sharks. We get to celebrate them on August 30, International Whale Shark Day. As they say on The Days of the Year website, “the bunnies have got Easter sewn up and Christmas is all about Rudolph, so it’s only fair that every one’s favorite fish, the whale shark, gets a bit of the cherry.” (photo – Burt Jones, Maureen Shimlock)
A Really Big Fish
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, one was measured to a length of 41.5 feet (12.65 m) and a weight of about 47,000 lb.s, and it is believed that the species has been swimming the oceans for over 60 million years. They are open water, (pelagic) filter feeders and can live up to 70 years.
International Whale Shark Day also has its serious side, by drawing attention to the vulnerability of the world’s largest fish.
Until the late 1990’s whale sharks were fished for both their meat and fins and the total, global population fell by 50% over the last 75 years. In 1998 the commercial fishing of whale sharks was banned in the Philippines and this example was then followed by India and Taiwan. However, whale sharks are still vulnerable to over-fishing, by-catch and impact with vessels. Whale sharks are listed as endangered by the IUCN and they are included with six other shark species under the recent CMS Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks. In 2003, they were listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Some communities are exempt from these international bans because the hunting of whale sharks is considered a part of traditional lifestyle. See this article in Top Indonesia that describes the traditional hunting of whale sharks, mantas, dolphins and whales off the island of Lembata in Indonesia.
Whale sharks are in trouble, from fishing and bycatch. But there are other dangers too. A dead, 18 foot long, whale shark washed ashore in the state of Tamil Nadu in India, bringing worldwide attention to its demise from a collision with a ship. During the necropsy, a plastic spoon was discovered stuck in the whale’s digestive system, apparently ingested while the animal was feeding. “It is a stark revelation how plastic waste is getting into the marine eco-system. The marine species can’t distinguish between floating plastic and prey. We should avoid dumping plastic waste into the sea,” a local official stated.
It is obvious from this story and many others that plastic waste is a serious threat to the health of marine creatures. See our Blue Ocean posts: Thousands of Miles Away Is Not Far Enough To Escape Plastic Pollution and Our Plastic Ocean.
Whale Shark “Eco-Tourism”
Whale sharks are not a threat to humans and this is both a blessing and a curse. There presence can be an enormous tourism attraction, bringing tourist dollars to local economies that might otherwise be fishing them. Isla Holbox off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan has become one of the most popular whale shark destinations, because their seasonal arrival (between May and September) is predictable and reliable. More than 400 whale sharks gathered off the Yucatan in 2011, one of the largest gatherings ever recorded. (photo – Burt Jones, Maureen Shimlock)
However, whale shark “eco-tourism” is not without drawbacks. As reported in Aljazeera two tourism areas in the Philippines had different approaches to swimming with their whale sharks, read to find out which is sustainable. Read Should you swim with whale sharks in the Philippines?
Celebrate with us, these magnificent and gentle creatures on International Whale Shark Day but keep in mind that although they might be big they need our protection.
By Bob Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
See These Related Blue Ocean Posts on Sharks:
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