“I hope for your help to explore and protect the wild ocean in ways that will restore the health and, in so doing, secure hope for humankind. Health to the ocean means health for us.” – Sylvia Earle, Marine Biologist
The oceans are home to some of the most remarkable and mysterious creatures, and none capture our imagination quite like the whale shark. As the largest fish on Earth, these gentle giants have a vital role to play in the health of marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, they’re facing a range of challenges that put their survival at risk.
The International Whale Shark Day on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, celebrates these gentle giants, and in this article, we’ll explore the factors that impact whale sharks, including changes in their food supply, the warming of the oceans, and the consequences of human activities like fishing. We’ll also discuss why it’s crucial to protect them and what we can do to help.
Whale sharks, the largest known fish species, are graceful inhabitants of the world’s oceans. With a distinctive checkerboard pattern on their backs and a mouth wide enough to engulf a small car, these gentle giants possess an air of magnificence that’s truly unparalleled. Despite their impressive size, their docile nature makes them a sought-after sight for snorkelers and divers. These filter-feeding marvels roam the open waters, traveling vast distances and captivating the imagination of all who encounter them.
Sadly, the whale shark has been listed as “Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which suggests that their populations may decline if conservation efforts are not properly implemented and sustained.
Struggle for Food: Ripple Effects in the Ecosystem
Imagine a bustling city where everything is connected – that’s the underwater world where whale sharks live. They’re like the “clean-up crew,” eating tiny creatures like plankton and small fish. This helps prevent overcrowding and keeps the balance of life in check. However, changes in the ocean environment, such as pollution and damage to habitats, have disrupted this balance. This affects not only whale sharks but also all the creatures that depend on a thriving ocean ecosystem.
Climate change is like a big puzzle, and the pieces are getting rearranged. Warmer waters make it hard for whale sharks to find their favorite meals. These meals, called plankton, are moving to cooler areas. It’s like if your favorite restaurant suddenly moved to another town! This forces whale sharks to travel longer distances, which can be risky. Imagine walking a long way to get your lunch – it’s tiring and dangerous, especially with big ships in the water.
According to the research of the Marine Biology Association and the University of Southampton, their population has decreased by over 50% in the last 75 years, and researchers believe that industrialised shipping may be to blame. The number of large merchant vessels (>100 gross tons) has increased by over 50 times worldwide in the last 25 years, and these ships often travel through the shallow coastal waters where whale sharks gather in large numbers. This puts the massive, slow-swimming whale sharks at risk of lethal collisions. Researchers are now faced with the challenge of monitoring and quantifying the impact of industrialised shipping on whale sharks.
Fishing Trouble: Unintended Consequences
Humans rely on the ocean for food, and that’s okay. But sometimes, we take too much. This is called overfishing. When we catch too many fish, there’s not enough left for whale sharks to eat. It’s like having a party and eating all the snacks before your guests arrive! What’s worse, sometimes fishing nets catch more than just fish. They accidentally catch whale sharks, along with other animals.
Fishermen often catch animals they do not intend to keep or sell or are prohibited from being kept. This can include fish and other marine animals like dolphins, sea turtles, and seabirds that accidentally get caught in fishing gear. This is called “bycatch,” and it’s a big problem. Imagine going fishing for a goldfish and ending up with a shark – not what you planned!
Taking Action: Small Steps, Big Impact
Conserving whale sharks might seem like a huge task, but everyone can help in their own way. First, we can be mindful of what we put in the ocean – no littering and using eco-friendly products helps. When it comes to fishing, choosing sustainable seafood supports healthier oceans. We can also support protected areas where whale sharks can roam safely without getting caught in fishing gear.
Numerous conservation organisations, governments, researchers, and local communities have taken action to address these challenges. Collaborative efforts have led to the establishment of marine protected areas where fishing and other potentially harmful activities are restricted. International agreements and regulations have been developed to manage fisheries and reduce accidental bycatch.
Sharing what we know with friends and family is like passing on the secret recipe for a delicious cake. When more people understand why whale sharks matter, they’ll be more likely to help protect them. This is the main goal of BioDB, to promote awareness for each and every species. Responsible ecotourism benefits whale sharks by generating funds for conservation, providing educational opportunities, and supporting scientific research.
It emphasises minimal disturbance through adherence to guidelines, educates visitors about these creatures and their ecosystem importance, involves local communities, and often involves regulations and codes of conduct to ensure respectful interactions. This approach contributes to preserving whale sharks and their habitats while offering sustainable economic benefits.
Protecting whale sharks isn’t just about them; it’s about saving our oceans and ourselves. Think of it as taking care of a giant garden. If you pull out too many plants, the garden becomes unhealthy. The same happens in the ocean – if we remove too many creatures, the whole system gets messed up. By protecting whale sharks, we’re helping to keep the ocean healthy and full of life. Plus, they’re like ocean superheroes – they keep the balance despite looking calm and slow.
Gentle Giants Worth Protecting
Whale sharks are more than just big fish – they’re essential to our planet’s delicate balance. Climate change, overfishing, and other human activities are pushing them into danger, but it’s not too late to make a change. We can be a part of the solution by taking small steps and spreading the word. Just like we look out for our homes and loved ones, let’s extend that care to these ocean guardians. By doing so, we’re ensuring a healthier ocean for us, them, and all the incredible creatures that call it home.
By Assaf Levy, Founder & CEO of BioDB.com, a group tasked with collecting conservation data, raising awareness for biodiversity loss and fundraising