Appreciating the beauty of a gentle giant

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International Whale Shark Day was marked on 30 August, in a bid to increase public awareness on the importance of whale sharks and the need to protect them. According to experts, Sri Lanka can proudly announce that there are no serious threats to whale sharks from its citizens. However, we are yet to appreciate the beauty of these gentle giants, which peacefully dwell in our waters.

What is a whale shark?

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is a slow-moving, filter-feeding carpet shark and the largest known extant fish species.

It was most recently been assessed for The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2016. Rhincodon typus is listed as Endangered under criteria A2bd+4bd.

According to the IUCN Red List, major contemporary threats to whale sharks include fisheries catches, bycatch in nets, and vessel strikes. Other threats affect whale sharks on local or regional scales.  

Whale sharks are presently fished in several locations. In Southern China, large-scale commercial take of whale sharks appears to be increasing. Although whale sharks are not necessarily targeted, they are routinely captured and retained when sighted. A small-scale opportunistic fishery for whale sharks is also present in Oman.

Whale sharks have previously been targeted in large-scale fisheries in India, the Philippines, and Taiwan, with hundreds of sharks caught annually in each country until species-level protections were implemented. A smaller directed fishery occurred in the Maldives until whale sharks were protected in 1995. Shipping lanes, where they are placed close to whale shark feeding areas, can create a serious risk of vessel strikes. Whale sharks routinely feed at the surface, and propeller injuries are commonly recorded during monitoring programmes. While mortality events are seldom reported in the contemporary scientific literature, they were often noted from slower-moving vessels in the past. It is likely that fast-moving, large ships do not register or report impacts, and as whale sharks will typically sink on death, these are unlikely to be documented.

Why mark International Whale Shark Day?

Environmental Lawyer, Dr. Jagath Gunawardana said since 2008, 30 August has been designated as International Whale Shark Day, and it has been celebrated worldwide. The goal of International Whale Shark Day is to raise awareness about the whale shark and its environmental services, as well as the threats that the fish is presently facing and the need to conserve it.

The whale shark is presently classified as Endangered (EN) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the organisation, the number of this fish has decreased to half (50 per cent) of its previous level.

Why is Sri Lanka a special case?

Although whale shark hunting occurs in many parts of the world, it does not occur in Sri Lanka, Dr. Gunawardana highlighted. Further, he said Sri Lankans have not eaten whale shark meat in the past and are not doing so at present as well. “However, the whale shark is unique in that it is legally protected in Sri Lanka under the provisions of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act.”

Legal protection

Whale sharks have been given legal protection in Sri Lankan waters by two series of orders published in the gasette, Shark Fisheries Management Regulations, 2015 and Shark Fisheries Management (High Seas) Regulations, 2015. “These orders were enacted under Section 29 of the said Act and were considered in Extraordinary Gazette No. 1938/2 dated 28 October 2015. Among these, the second order of the Shark Fisheries Management Regulations, 2015 states that no shark species mentioned in its schedules should be caught,” he said. 

Furthermore, the Shark Fisheries Management (High Seas) Regulations, 2015 state that no shark species mentioned in its schedule may be caught. “Furthermore, according to its fourth order, any person engaged in the fishing industry on the high seas keeps, transfers to another boat, or lands a fish of a specific species of shark or a body part of such a fish belonging to a species of shark mentioned in this schedule in a local fishing boat, storage, sale, or offering for sale is prohibited,” he added.

Also, in the sixth order, there are measures to be taken when any shark mentioned in its schedule is accidentally caught, including the whale shark. “Accordingly, it is stated that this shark should be released as practically as possible without any harm, and that the number of sharks caught, the places where they were caught, as well as the action taken to release them safely should be recorded in the logbook maintained in the fishing boat,” he further said.

He said the fifth order specifically applies to the whale shark, and the remaining orders are generally applicable to the five shark species, including the whale shark. Thus, the above orders of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act appear to have provided adequate legal protection for the whale shark found in Sri Lankan waters. Although whale sharks are not killed in Sri Lanka for food or any other reason, a strange threat to them emerged about a decade ago.

Strange threat

Dr. Gunawardana said the reason for this was that after the whale shark was captured and brought ashore, photos of the incident were published in some media, and some people have a habit of photographing them on land and posting them on social media. Speaking further, he noted even before providing legal protection for whale sharks, the Police had taken steps to curb this act in several cases in accordance with the provisions of the Cruelty to Animal Ordinance. However, such incidents were reported only once after 2015, and that was in 2017, implying that such incidents were not reported in the last five years.

“Many international days dedicated to the environment and wildlife highlight Sri Lanka’s failure to fulfil its responsibilities and duties, but on International Whale Shark Day, we can speak proudly about the situation in Sri Lanka. However, it is unfortunate that the public sector has not taken steps to obtain the praise or fame that Sri Lanka can obtain on this day. Thus, we hope that next year’s International Whale Shark Day will receive the praise, attention, and recognition that it deserves, and that the Sri Lankan authorities will take action to officially commemorate it,” he said.

The whale shark’s flattened head sports a blunt snout above its mouth with short barbels protruding from its nostrils. Its back and sides are gray to brown with white spots among pale vertical and horizontal stripes, and its belly is white. Its two dorsal fins are set rearward on its body, which ends in a large dual-lobbed caudal fin (or tail). Preferring warm waters, whale sharks populate all tropical seas. They are known to migrate every spring to the continental shelf of the central west coast of Australia. The coral spawning of the area’s Ningaloo Reef provides the whale shark with an abundant supply of plankton. Although massive, whale sharks are docile fish and sometimes allow swimmers to hitch a ride. They are presently listed as a vulnerable species, however, they continue to be hunted in parts of Asia, such as the Philippines.

(National Geographic)

By Thameenah Razeek