Bad news for whale sharks: The world’s largest fish are being killed for bait and billboards

WhySharksMatter and a whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium

The world’s largest shark eats only plankton, couldn’t bite a human if it wanted to, and is one of the few sharks that could be reasonably described as beautiful. Globally, SCUBA divers pay an estimated $50 million each year for the chance to swim with these incredible fish. Their long migrations through international waters makes international cooperation necessary to protect them, which is particularly important because the 30 years it can take for these animals to reach reproductive maturity means that populations will take a long time to recover if they are overexploited. They’re listed by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group as Vulnerable globally. Between their charismatic nature, their inability to harm humans, and their value to ecotourism, it should be easy to convince governments to protect whale sharks *, making two recent reports all the more shocking.

At the recent Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting, Australia introduced a proposal to ban intentionally setting tuna nets around whale sharks. You read that correctly: it is currently legally permissible (and not uncommon) for fishing vessels to intentionally deploy tuna purse seine nets around whale sharks. As was discussed in my dolphin-safe tuna post, schools of tuna will often aggregate around anything, including buoys, logs, or fifty foot long sharks that are extremely valuable for ecotourism and extremely vulnerable to overexploitation. Being caught in a tuna net and dragged onto the deck of a fishing vessel is often lethal, and an estimated 75 whale sharks have died since 2009. Those that survived undoubtedly experienced extreme stress, as fish that large aren’t used to supporting their own weight out of water. Unfortunately, Australia’s common-sense proposal was stalled by the Japanese delegation and was not enacted this year. According to Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates International, it will be discussed again when the WCPFC meets again in December.

““We are perplexed and dismayed by continuing delays in adopting such basic and sensible safeguards for these globally threatened and economically important species,” said Rebecca Regnery, Deputy Director of Wildlife for the Humane Society International of the failure of this proposal. That’s putting it mildly.

Although whale sharks are protected from harvest in many countries, new research shows that whale shark fishing is on the rise in China. Between 1980 and 2003, only 17 whale shark landings were officially recorded in China. Since 2003, there have been 167 recorded landings- though interviews with shark processing plant employees indicate that over 1,000 whale sharks are landed annually. While there is a limited market for whale shark meat (see here for a disturbing image of whale shark shark processing) , it is the fins that are the biggest draw. Whale shark fins, not surprisingly, are enormous, and therefore fetch the highest price at market. Some of the huge whale shark fins are used to make shark fin soup, while others are placed in the windows of shark fin stores to serve as billboards.

Logs and buoys will attract tuna just as effectively as whale sharks, and a sign will advertise the presence of a shark fin store just as effectively as a whale shark fin. Our current inability to protect these charismatic, harmless, and vulnerable sharks from being killed as tuna bait and billboards is one of many reminders that nothing about marine conservation is easy.

* There have been some conservation successes, including a CITES Appendix II listing, a Convention on Migratory Species listing, and assorted national-level bans on harvest.

April 5, 2012 • 12:24 pm