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A Whale Shark of an Opportunity Lost in Hawaii

By Amanda Nickson and Julie Arner

The whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean. A favorite of many nature lovers, a mature adult is roughly the size of a school bus — weighing more than 20 tons on average and measuring up to ten yards in length. This massive stature and the fact that it is harmless to people make it a huge economic engine, generating millions of dollars in tourism activities for countries in the Pacific.

Yet, while whale sharks are enormous in size, leading scientists have grown increasingly concerned that the numbers of these magnificent animals in our oceans are now dangerously low. Commercial fishing takes its toll on the species, and not all of the countries responsible acknowledge the problem. Fisheries targeting other species, such as tuna, are a particular threat.

International representatives at the December meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in Hawaii, for example, looked at measures that could have helped protect this animal, but couldn’t agree on taking action.

Big Fish in big Trouble

Sharks caught in high-seas fisheries, either intentionally or indirectly through so-called “bycatch,” are among the ocean’s most vulnerable animals. More than one-half of those taken in high-seas fisheries are classified as Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Indeed, their low reproductive rates make them particularly susceptible to overfishing in the face of increased demand for shark fins and other products. And this problem now imperils an array of species from hammerheads to whale sharks.

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While whale sharks attract divers from around the globe to places like the Maldives, Belize and Australia, they are also a magnet for schools of tuna, which are drawn to many of the larger marine species. Fishing boats chase tuna for their lucrative flesh, but also catch sharks as a result of their efforts. Sometimes, whale sharks are even encircled just to capture the tuna that swim with them.

For example, in the Western and Central Pacific, 60 whale sharks were estimated to have died in purse seine nets in 2009. Purse seine fishing vessels surround large schools of tuna with enormous nets that stretch up to one mile long. Whale shark mortality in the waters of the West and Central Pacific is estimated at 12 percent, a rate much too high for a species threatened with extinction.

A Window of Opportunity in the Aloha State

The issue of whale sharks and purse seine vessels was taken up at WCPFC’s meeting in Honolulu. Established by an international convention in 2004, the WCPFC is one of the world’s newest and largest Regional Fisheries Management Organizations. It is responsible for managing highly migratory fish stocks over a swath of ocean that covers nearly one fifth of the Earth’s surface. Its membership ranges from small island states like Fiji and Palau to major economic powers such as China, Japan and the United States. But what makes the WCPFC rather unique among other fisheries management organizations is its charter.

The WCPFC’s modern charter empowers its members to create a sustainable future for a large proportion of the world’s commercial fish populations. Indeed, the charter:

  • Mandates the use of precautionary and ecosystem-based approaches to management;
  • Insists that decisions are based on the best scientific information available; and
  • Requires members to minimize bycatch and protect biodiversity.

WCPFC does not only look at sharks. With almost 60 percent of the world’s tuna originating from the waters of the western and central Pacific, these fish are critical to the livelihoods of Pacific peoples and states. WCPFC also addresses how the developing countries of the Pacific, whose waters are home to these species, can receive equitable benefits from the sustainable harvesting of fish as well as to address the unregulated fishing and the under-reporting of catch in their waters.

The Continued Need for Action

Even though no action was taken on whale sharks at this meeting, it is important to continue to look hopefully to the member countries of the WCPFC because so many of them — most notably leading Pacific Island countries — have embraced the future of the oceans that surround and sustain them. The waters of Palau, for example, an area of the Pacific the size of France, are a sanctuary for sharks and all marine mammals. Not surprisingly, the healthy reefs of Palau, featuring a complete ecosystem rarely found elsewhere, attract tourists from around the world. It is this example we hold up, and hope that all countries embrace.

Amanda Nickson and Julie Arner attended the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting that took place December 6-10, 2010 on behalf of the Pew Environment Group.

The views expressed in this article are those of Amanda Nickson and Julie Arner or the Pew Environment Group and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society.

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