By Mike Jaynes
As humanity delves into the twenty-first century, it behooves us to examine our oft-lauded merits. We are living in an American age where women have more freedom than ever, racial equality is slowly becoming a fact of life, and people are beginning to understand that the environment must be cared for. In this age of human realization, glory, and self-aggrandizing, it is an unfortunate fact that many animals are still largely ignored by the masses. True, animal ethics issues are moving from a tangential status to a more mainstream focus, but what people say and what people do remain two distinctly separate things. Seventy plus percent of the planet is water, and it would be useful for us to consider the largest fish on the planet and its current plight. The Whale Shark (rhincodon typus) is the largest, and perhaps the gentlest, fish on the planet. And it is nearing extinction as a result of the unchecked practice of shark finning which provides shark fins for soup and other delicacies primarily in Asian countries. It is an ancient peaceful creature and worthy of the attention of this short article.
Despite its name, the Whale Shark is not a whale. The largest adult ever recorded was forty feet, seven inches long, though there have been scientifically unrecorded sightings of Whale Sharks up to sixty feet long. They are extremely long lived (up to 100 years, it is thought), reach sexual maturity at around thirty years of age, and pose absolutely no risk to humans. Whale Sharks are often held up as iconic examples by presenters and educators during attempts to dissuade the stereotype of all sharks as man-eaters. Unlike other sharks, their mouths are huge and placed on the front of their heads, not under the snout. They are filter feeders and feed by opening their huge mouths and swimming through plankton and other small prey such as squid, small crustaceans, and squid that are strained through gills. They are also known for their iconic spots on their skin and are often playful with divers. In fact, they often float upside down near the surface letting divers can scrape parasites off their skin. Having no real predators, theirs is a world free of worry and fear. In fact, unlike whales and other large marine life, Whale Sharks often will not get out of the way of oncoming ships. Oddly they seem oblivious of the approaching danger and some of them die each year due to ship strikes.
In fact, the Whale Shark is a mystery and not much is actually known about them. According to the National Geographic News, Whale Sharks were only discovered by humans in 1828. Considering how big they are, the fact they like to spend much of their lives at shallow depths, and how long humans have been seafaring, it is remarkable they were unknown to us for so long. It wasn’t until 1996 that researchers discovered they give birth to live young. Also, researchers recently realized that they will often dive down to 3,000 feet to feed. At these depths, the water temperature is just above freezing and this explains the layer of insulating blubber on these tropical fish that has previously baffled researchers. Despite recent interest in them, much remains to learn about the amazing and beautiful rhincodon typus.
Found predictably in only nine areas of the world, it is the Philippines which house the largest concentration of them. These fish are among the most threatened fish in the world. In fact, National Geographic News also reports that of all the shark species, it is the Whale Sharks, Basking Sharks, and Great White Sharks that need the most protection with the Whale Shark topping the list. The predator that is wiping out the Whale Shark populations is humans and the method of shark finning often utilized is inhumane. The big fish only swim about three miles per hour; they are not swift like their many shark cousins. Due to their large size, preference for shallow depths, and slow swimming speed they are easy prey for harpoons and other methods of fishing. With the unfortunate demand for shark fin so high in Asian (and other) countries, shark fin has become the second most profitable substance in the world on a per pound basis to transport behind cocaine. Many have heard of the practice, but few have seen its horrors. For a complete introductory education on shark finning, please see Rob Stewart’s film “Sharkwater.”
Sharks are harpooned or otherwise caught and hauled upon the decks of fishing vessels. Even Hammerheads and Great Whites are defenseless out of the water on the decks of these ships. Finners will restrain the shark’s body and stay well away from the jaws. Then they will cut off pectoral fins, the dorsal fins, and the fluke from the struggling shark. Then the still very much alive, very much feeling shark is discarded back into the sea where it sinks in agony, unable to swim, and is either eaten by predators or bleeds to death. Incidentally, shark meat is relatively inexpensive, bulky, and not worth the storage space on these fishing boats to transport back to shore. The easily stored fins are tucked away to be illegally sold to various Asian black markets and the suffering creature ,who has known no predator for 300 million years, is discarded like trash to the sea. Shark hunters spread the propaganda of sharks being man-eaters, fierce predators of humans. We should be thankful, the shark hunters would have us believe, that they are ridding the sea of this killer menace. With shark fin bringing such a premium on a per pound basis, even the giant gentle Whale Shark is often hunted for its huge fins. The primary motivating factor is simple greed. The Whale Shark is also called the “Tofu Shark” due to its bland taste and it all shark products consumed by humans are unneeded. There is also another scary prospect; many sharks are nearing 5 to 10 percent of their numbers a century ago. Being apex predators of the oceans, if the sharks continue to disappear, an uncorrectable imbalance in the world’s marine ecosystems will ensue and perhaps all sea life could be in peril if the sharks disappear. Most simply, if the world’s oceans die, we all die.
Whale Sharks are in dire danger. Andrea Mayes quotes Zeb Hogan, a fisheries biologist at the University of Reno in Nevada, who gives some specific reasons for this danger. Whale Sharks are highly migratory; even at their slow swimming speed, they can migrate up to 8000 miles from Mexico to the Tonga Islands. Hogan says when these sharks migrate, there exists a greater chance they might be targeted by fisherman or suffer habitat destruction. They have biological difficulties as well. Hogan says, “They live a long time, don’t reproduce until a late age (30 years old), and often need vast areas to survive.” Mayes points out this adds to their danger. Also, it is true that many countries protect sharks in their coastal waters but once sharks move past the 200 mile range, they are in international waters and those are largely unregulated. Unenforced laws on the high seas is ensuring the slaughter of Whale Sharks, whales and other sharks continues practically unchecked and these silent creatures are suffering massive population reductions for no other reason than the financial gain of humans.
Four main problems face Whale Sharks including reduced plankton due to accelerating climate change, human hunting, ship strikes, and not reaching sexual maturity until age thirty. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) only lists Whale Sharks as a threatened species, not endangered. However, due to their little known numbers, this could be a terrible oversight on IUCN’s part. And, since the flawed theory of Sustainable Use sustains the whaling industry as well as the illegal trade in elephant ivory, it might be well to note that the listing of Asian and African elephants as endangered has done little to ensure their safety from human greed. As it has been said before, the bleak situation of the world’s sharks seems to be that they will find no solace, no relief, no hiding place in anything except nothingness.
Due to activist and public interest, these giant fish are getting some circulation in the consciousness of the masses. In fact, deep space research may help save them. Australian marine biologist Brad Norman, NASA astronomer Zaven Arzoumanian, and US software expert Jason Holmberg have developed a program to track Whale Sharks by their unique patterns of spots on their skin. The program was designed to track star patterns in constellations read by the Hubble space telescope, and in a similar manner it can photograph and track spot patterns on Whale Sharks. Researchers hope this will help scientists get a more accurate idea of their global numbers. For more information on this project, see the Whale Shark Data Library.
Finally, I would like to present a possible solution. I must say I remain unconvinced by the theory of Sustainable Use or Wise Use which say animals must pay their keep with economic value in some way. However, some countries are focusing on Whale Sharks in ecotourism. Non-consumptive use can bring plenty revenue to countries who are lucky enough to have these huge creatures living near their coasts. Activists hope ecotourism could be a helpful method of Whale Shark conservation and help raise public awareness regarding the threatened creatures. The fishing of, importing, exporting, or selling of Whale Sharks for any commercial purpose has been banned in the Philippines since 1998, India in 2001, and Taiwan in 2007, but the underground finning trade continues unabated, the high seas remain unregulated, and these sharks are disappearing in ever greater numbers. As for viewing captive Whale Sharks, the only place outside of Asia is the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia. The Aquarium has come under scrutiny in recent years following the death of two Whale Sharks in its care during 2007. Fault wasn’t ascribed to the aquarium, but many activists fervently speak out against aquaria and other methods of captivity. Regardless of one’s views on such programs, it seems sensible that everyone can agree awareness is needed regarding these sharks and conservation programs must be put into place and into action. It is only through education and direct compassion that we can help the world’s biggest and gentlest fish survive as it was meant to.
For now the giant Whale Shark drifts through tropical waters at a steady pace of three miles per hour. It dives and climbs to seek microscopic food and knows no fear, often hanging vertically near the surface to feed. It is upsetting to imagine the creature’s surprise when the harpoon tears through its four-inch thick skin and the slow tortuous process of reeling in and dying begins. But plenty of Whale Sharks escape this fate for now and make the long migratory voyage to mate and to live and to have their young and to teach them and to glide slowly through the tropical waters of the world. Gentle giants posing absolutely no threat to humanity; they deserve their lives. They, as all animals, are inherently worthwhile, inherently invaluable. They live in a world much removed from ours. Whale Sharks do not kill each other as we do. They are likely wiser, kinder, and more graceful than most of us. Please do not patronize restaurants that serve shark fin soup and help spread awareness of the plight of all sharks.
And, at the very least if you can, from time to time think about the great lumbering Whale Shark beneath the seas and know that it is good. It deserves survival because it is unique and it is blameless and it is gentle. Even if it did want to harm a human, it has no physical way to do so outside of an inadvertent tail strike. Think of it from time to time.
Mike Jaynes is an American writer living in the Southeast. He has published on various animal ethics issues including elephant captivity and issues facing sharks.