Kenya: Are We Seeing the Last of the Whale Sharks?

Volker Bassen saw his first whale shark in 1991, while diving off Kinondo reef along Kenya’s famed Diani beach; a sight that would stay with him for years and come 2005, would inspire him to introduce whale shark diving in Kenya.

That’s when many Kenyans became aware of the gigantic fish reaching lengths of 18 metres so close to home.But now, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has changed the listing of the whale shark from “threatened” to “endangered.”

Also listed as endangered is the winghead shark in the Pacific Ocean while the orangutan in the forests of Borneo is “critically endangered” — bringing them all one step closer to extinction.

According to a statement from IUCN, the numbers of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), have more than halved over the past 75 years as these slow-moving sharks continue to be fished and killed by ship propellers.

And because they are slow and are often found together with tuna, whale sharks are often caught by fishermen targeting tuna. Previously, large-scale fishing in India, Phillippines and Taiwan — which has now ended — saw large numbers of this species of shark killed.

However, there is still another reason driving the dwindling numbers: Pollution, specifically plastic waste in the ocean. Unlike other sharks, whale sharks feed on plankton. In the place of jaws, they have filtering pads that cover the entrance of their throats. With every gulp of water, they filter a massive amount of plankton through their mouth.

“Whale shark numbers have been plummeting worldwide despite the ban on commercial fishing that targeted them more than a decade ago,” says Bassen. “This must be due to plastic pollution. Whale sharks spend 90 per cent of their lifetime filter-feeding on the surface, where plastic floats.”

The argument was first put forward by Dr Keiichi Sato from the Churaumi aquarium in Japan after some whale sharks held in open sea pens died having swallowed plastic when the area was hit with typhoons. A two-square-inch piece of plastic was found in the gut of a six-metre long whale shark.

This plastic pollution theory is near impossible to prove in the wild. The whale shark does not have a swimming bladder as most fish do. Instead it has a huge liver to keep neutral buoyancy.

When a piece of plastic is swallowed by a whale shark, it clogs up part of its stomach. The whale shark then starves to death while using up its reserve energy stored as fat in its liver.

As this happens, the whale shark loses its buoyancy and sinks to the bottom of the sea – and all evidence of its dying from swallowing plastic sinks with it.

Bassen wants to change this.

After years of battling critics and authorities, Bassen, who is also the founder of the East Africa Whale Shark Trust, succeeded in getting the licence for the Waa Whale Shark Research and Discovery Centre in August 2015. It is expected to be in operation in 2017.

“We need to start showcasing these gentle giant sharks in order to conserve them. There is no better way than the sanctuary,” says Bassen.

The Waa Whale Shark sanctuary will be the biggest enclosure in the sea, 100 times bigger than the world’s biggest aquarium — the Georgia aquarium in the US holding four whale sharks. It will also be twice as deep which can hardly be described as a “cage”.

One of the goals of the East African Whale Shark Trust is to one day breed these majestic fish in captivity.”It will contribute tremendously to whale shark conservation because whale shark pups are born alive, 300 at a time,” says Bassen.

And independent from their mother the moment they are born, ready to be released back into the sea immediately.

But the problem is that 90 per cent of whale shark pups are taken by predators in their first year.

Bassen’s theory is that if the pups are kept in a guarded, plastic-free environment until they are two metres long, they have a greater survival rate upon release.

Along the Kenyan coast, whale sharks are targeted for their liver-oil, which is used to seal boats against sea-worms that bore into the vessels.

“Our vision is to prove to fishermen who kill whale sharks for their liver-oil, that a live whale shark is by far more valuable alive than dead. We need to refocus the value of the whale shark from its liver and fins to one of an extraordinary magnificent fish that can attract huge numbers of visitors to Kenya.”

Source: The East African.