Gen­tle gi­ants

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - Sources: Whale Shark and Oceanic Re­search Cen­tre, Pew En­vi­ron­ment Group

THE world’s largest fish, whale sharks ( Rhin­codon ty­pus) can reach lengths of 12m and weigh up to 21 tonnes. Al­though mas­sive, they are docile and harm­less to hu­mans; they feed on tiny ma­rine an­i­mals, in­clud­ing plank­ton, squids, crus­taceans and school­ing small fishes.

Whale sharks pop­u­late trop­i­cal and warm tem­per­ate seas, in­hab­it­ing both deep and shal­low coastal waters and the la­goons of coral atolls. Elec­tronic and satel­lite tag­ging of whale sharks have found that they can dive to depths of 700m and take long-dis­tance mi­gra­tions that can last years.

Tracked mi­gra­tions in­cluded trav­els of over 2,000km from north-west Aus­tralia to­wards Asia. Of three sharks tagged in the Sey­chelles in 2001, one trav­elled west to Zanz­ibar, the sec­ond north-west to So­ma­lia and the third trav­elled over 5,000km to Thai­land.

In­di­vid­u­als can be dis­tin­guished through the pat­tern of pale spots and stripes on their bod­ies, which is unique to each fish. Whale sharks are be­lieved to start breed­ing at around 30 years and give birth to live youngs. They have tra­di­tion­ally been hunted for their meat, liver oil, fins, skin and gills, and are also ac­ci­den­tally cap­tured in fish­ing nets tar­get­ing school­ing fish such as tuna.

In Tai­wan, the “tofu sharks” were hunted ex­ten­sively un­til an an­nual quota of 80 fish was set in 2002. The fig­ure was re­duced yearly and by Novem­ber 2007, whale shark fish­ing was banned in Tai­wan.

The In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture Red List of Threat­ened Species has clas­si­fied whale sharks as “vul­ner­a­ble” to ex­tinc­tion. They are also pro­tected by the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna and the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme’s Con­ven­tion on Mi­gra­tory Species.

To safe­guard the species, con­ser­va­tion­ists are pro­mot­ing whale shark tourism. In 2003, Belize re­ported an eco­nomic re­turn of US$3.7 mil from whale shark eco­tourism and the eco­nomic value of a sin­gle whale shark there was es­ti­mated at US$34,906 an­nu­ally. Whale shark dives on the Nin­ga­loo Reef in Aus­tralia brought in US$5.93 mil in 2006. — ByTanChengLi

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