Why are whale sharks endangered?

why are whale sharks endangered

Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, face a grim reality: they are endangered. In
the past 75 years, the species has seen a 50% decline globally. Demand for their meat, oil, and
fins, commercial fishing, boat collisions, climate change, habitat destruction, and poorly
managed tourism, all pose grave threats to whale sharks.

What are whale sharks?

Contrary to its name, this creature is no whale: it’s actually a really big shark. Though the
maximum size of whale sharks are unknown, they can weigh 15 to 30 tons and grow to be
longer than a city bus. They may be sharks, but these gentle giants roam the oceans eating
plankton. They have about 3,000 tiny teeth, but are of little use since they swallow their meals
whole.

Although they’ve been around for at least 60 million years, scientists know very little
about whale sharks. We see them so rarely that they weren’t even identified as a species until
the mid-19th century. But one of the things we do know is that their numbers are decreasing.
Their beautiful white spotted patterns make these creatures easy to distinguish and
popular attractions for snorkelers and divers worldwide.

Just like a human fingerprint, their white
spots are unique to each individual shark making it easier for scientists to identify and catalog
them for research. Although they can live up to 150 years, it’s thought that less than 10% of
whale sharks born survive to adulthood.

why are whale sharks endangered

What does endangered mean?

Endangered means that the species faces a high risk of extinction in the wild. A species
can be an animal, plant, coral, fungus, insect, or any other life form on the planet. The
biodiversity of life is so huge that scientists don’t even know how many species are out there.
Estimates reach into the millions and new species are discovered all the time. But of the species
we do know of, it’s important to study their health in order to protect the biodiversity of the
world’s ecosystems.

Man is the main reason why whale sharks are endangered. The whale shark is classified
as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of
Threatened Species and its global population continues to decline due to international fin trade,
as well as commercial fishing and by-catch, vessel strikes, and other man-made threats.

Reasons why whale sharks are endangered

The Shark Fin Trade

The whale shark has no natural predator other than a man. They are fished legally and
illegally in some countries for their oil and meat. The oil collected from their livers is used to
waterproof boats, and their meat is eaten in many parts of Asia.

Particularly, shark fins have high monetary and cultural value. Whale sharks are victims
of “finning”, in which the fin of a live shark is sliced off and the animal is thrown back into the
sea. Shark fins are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world where it is served as shark
fin soup.

Historically, shark fin soup is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and its popularity has
not faded with time. The dish is still widely eaten and is still a staple. As a result, fishermen have
a large incentive to practice shark finning. Just a single whale shark fin can be worth thousands
of dollars, putting a huge target on their back. They are currently the most expensive shark on
the market and a single fin can sell for as much as $500 a pound.

Commercial Fishing

Commercial fishing is another top reason why whale sharks are endangered. Even
though they are protected by various conventions, illegal hunting still occurs due to the
incredibly high demand for shark fins and meat. Oftentimes, whale sharks are caught as
by-catch, which is any unwanted marine animal caught during commercial fishing. Other times,
the shark will swim into commercial fishing trawl nets, purse seine nets, stow nets and drift gill
nets.

Destruction of Habitat

Global warming and pollution have negatively impacted the marine habitat. When one part of the food web dies, the rest of the web collapses. The warming temperature of our oceans
results in the destruction and death of coral reef ecosystems. The coral reefs provide a large
source of the whale shark’s food, so if that is disrupted then so is their migrational path.
Additionally, whale sharks can accidentally swallow plastic and other debris floating in the ocean
water leading to entanglement, suffocation, and death.

Tourism

These marine giants roam the world’s ocean generally alone in temperate and tropical
waters near the equator. The sites where they gather together have transformed into eco-tourism
hotspots. Globally, these sites are a huge source of revenue and can be an important tool in
conservation. However, these sites often are poorly managed in ways that allow humans to
benefit from the interaction and do not protect the sharks.

Divers and snorkelers around the world travel to known migratory locations where they
can experience firsthand the wonders of swimming with a whale shark.
Main ecotourism sites
include Ningaloo Reef in Australia, the Galapagos Islands, Thailand, Sea of Cortez, Philippines, Maldives, Belize, Seychelles, among a few others. These sites are important for the successful
conservation of the species.

Future of tourism

It is only inevitable that the whale shark ecotourism industry will continue to grow. Th
trend is now not to simply view the wildlife from the boat, but to rather swim alongside the
creature in the water. But by doing so, tourists can drive whale sharks away from their
migrational path, interfering with important mating or feeding grounds. Without proper
management, negative effects include disruption of their natural behavior, injury, habitat
changes, and the endangerment of the wildlife.

Disruption of their natural behavior has already been observed in whale sharks. Normally
docile and friendly creatures, they have been observed to avoid scuba divers and tourists who
swim too closely. Luckily, there are strict regulations on such interactions tourists can have with
the animals. Many organizations are working to create safer tourism practices so that people
can safely interact with whale sharks.

However, there is no way to regulate the sound. Whale sharks use sound to determine
pressure areas around them. Human activity in the water can throw off the shark’s sound
frequency impacting their migration path.

Boat Collisions

Whale sharks spend a lot of time on the surface of the water where they eat plankton
and other small fish. This exposes them to many threats. Collision with boat traffic can result in
injury or death for the sharks. It’s not uncommon for whale sharks to be spotted with scars from
a boat propeller. There have even been cases of partial or full amputations of the fin.

Are whale sharks legally protected?

Whale sharks are legally protected in the waters off the coasts of Australia, the Maldives,
the Philippines, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Honduras, Mexico, U.S. Atlantic waters, and Belize.
Additionally, whale sharks were added to the Bonn Convention for the Conservation of MigratorySpecies of Wild Animals (CMS), which identifies the species as one that would benefit from
international cooperative agreements.

The support to protect this incredible species is growing and the way to making progress
in the future towards protecting whale sharks everywhere is looking bright.

Wrapping up why whale sharks are endangered

People are also reading:

Sharks used to be the top predators in the marine ecosystem, but today, humans have
taken their place. Whale shark populations are declining rapidly on a global scale due to direct
and indirect human activity.

Such population plunges are not only dangerous for the sharks themselves, but also the
entire marine ecosystem. Top predators like sharks are critical to maintain biodiversity and the
health of our oceans. Their endangerment can have ripple effects through the whole ecosystem.

Thanks to conservation biologists and education, people are realizing how critical sharks
are to ecosystems. On a national and international scale, actions are being implemented to
protect whale sharks.

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