Saving the Gentle Giants of the Sea

Saving the Gentle Giants of the Sea

Publication Date:03/01/2012

Academia, the government and wildlife conservation groups have joined forces to protect whale sharks.

The graceful, slow-moving whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean. It has a unique checkerboard pattern on its back made up of creamy white spots, pale horizontal and vertical stripes, and a white underbelly. The species feeds on plankton and other small organisms filtered through its gills, making it one of only three known sharks that feed in that manner, along with the basking shark and the megamouth shark.

The whale shark is a highly migratory species inhabiting tropical and warm waters, and it has long been a target of fishermen throughout Asia. The creatures are hunted primarily for their fins and meat (for human consumption), oil (for waterproofing fishing boat hulls) and skin (for leather products). Shark fin soup, in particular, is usually served at upscale Chinese restaurants or banquets to impress guests.

The combination of overfishing, environmental damage and the animal’s biological characteristics, including slow growth, late maturity (at around 30 years of age) and low reproduction rate, has meant that whale shark populations have decreased sharply in the last decade. Recent estimates suggest that Taiwan’s whale shark population is beginning to recover, however, thanks to conservation efforts.

Shih Chuan-fa (釋傳法), secretary-general of the Taipei-based animal protection group, Life Conservationist Association (LCA), cites statistics released by the World Wildlife Fund that report more than 180 species of sharks, about one-third of their total number, are at risk of extinction. Shih says this is partly due to the practice of shark finning by fishermen to cater for demand from Chinese communities worldwide. “Eating shark fins is neither ‘necessary’ nor conducive to health, given their low nutritional value,” Shih says. “Some diners eat fins just to gratify their vanity; to show off their wealth because they can afford an expensive dish. They’re probably not aware that their eating habits have caused immense injury and pain to sharks and are having a devastating effect on their survival and the whole ecological system as well.”

Sharks, Shih explains, are apex predators—they are at the top of the ocean food chain and prey upon healthy animals, thus ensuring diversity and population control. If they were eliminated, an ecological imbalance would occur.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the whale shark on its Red List of Threatened Species by registering it as “vulnerable” in 2000. The IUCN is the world’s largest environmental network and its efforts include governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in partnership to assess the conservation status of species and find pragmatic solutions to the most pressing environmental challenges.

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