This is an article from this weekend's Amandala. Friends of Nature, the
southern Belize NGO headquartered in Placencia, the organization heavily
involved in this "transaction," doesn't like (in fact, vehemently
objects) to the characterization of this proposal as the "sale" of whale
sharks. So, ok, let's say the transfer of two whale sharks into
captivity in Atlanta Georgia in return for a "donation" to Friends of
Nature. (wink, wink)
If you have an opinion about this "transfer," contact information is at
the end of the article.
Whale Sharks in Captivity?
By Lisa Carne
B.Sc. Marine Biology
Whale sharks in captivity.that sounds like an oxymoron! What is
an oxymoron? When two contradictory terms are combined, like
"jumbo-shrimp", "fresh-frozen", or "deafening silence".A whale shark is
the world's largest fish, by some accounts growing up to 60 ft (20 m)
long and weighing over 2 tonnes so how could it possibly be contained in
a tank or aquarium?
Leave it to the Japanese to find a way, albeit through trial and
error. From 1980-1998 the Okinawa aquarium has been through 16 whale
sharks, all dead now. They were kept in a tank 88 feet by 39 feet and
just 11 feet deep. Whale sharks in the wild can range up to 20,000 km
and dive down to depths of 1500 m (5000ft)! So it's a small wonder that
the fishes' life span in a tank was as short as three days, to a maximum
of five years. Five years sounds pretty good? Not when you consider that
a whale shark in the wild can live up 100 years and most are not even
sexually mature till after 30 years of age!
What little we know about whale sharks comes from research in
the wild, observers diving with the sharks and satellite tags telling us
their distribution, range, and diving depths.
Whale sharks are found all over the world in tropical oceans,
except the Mediterranean Sea. They aggregate (come together in groups)
in Australia, the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles, the Gulf of Mexico,
Honduras and Belize. They are currently protected in all of these
countries as tourism has blossomed around the chance of a wild encounter
with whale sharks, and a living whale shark is worth more than the price
of its fins.
This protection is recent though; as late as the year 2000, 1500
whale sharks were slaughtered for their meat and fins in India. Illegal
hunting continues and there are many other countries where the whale
shark is not protected at all: every year 100 sharks are killed in
Taiwan, where they are known as the "tofu shark' because of their soft
Whale sharks are now listed on CITES Appendix II, meaning all trade must
be reported. And they are listed on the IUCN Red List as "vulnerable".
This vague distinction means we don't really know how many whale sharks
are left in the world but we do know they are being over-harvested, like
so many of our marine resources.
Belize and Placencia specifically, is one of the rare locations
in the world where whale sharks can be reliably and predictably
encountered. Every year in the months April-June and even July, whale
sharks congregate at Gladden Spit shortly after the full moon, to feed
on the snapper spawn. Tourists readily pay upwards of US$150 a day
(after their airfare and lodging) for a chance to see a whale shark in
the wild. Local Tour Guides must take a special course to learn about
the sharks and guidelines for interactions with them (distance away from
the sharks, number of people in the water at one time, etc.) Lauren
Hutton, a famous model/actress with a jetsetting adventure agenda and
the fortune to back it, said diving with the whale sharks in Belize was
the single greatest experience of her life. With all these tourist
dollars coming into Belize over the whale sharks, why would anyone think
of putting them in a tank?
Aquariums have been around since the late1800's. WAZA, the World
Association for Zoos and Aquariums, represents over 1000 institutions
and estimates over 6 million visitors a year. Japan has at least 10
aquariums: one of them houses two whale sharks in a 30 foot tall tank
along with mantas and tunas. With visitors averaging 8500 a day at about
$20 US apiece, that's $170,000 USD A DAY!
Many of these same Japanese aquariums house marine mammals such
as dolphins and killer whales. Although most aquariums cite "research
benefits' as justification for housing large animals, the Japanese
cannot be confused with conservationists. They are the inventors of
"drive fisheries": the practice of herding 100's of dolphins or whales
into a shallow cove or inlet. The aquarium representatives then pick a
few (maybe six) specimens to keep in a tank, and the rest are
slaughtered for meat.
Sea World now wants to get in on the Japanese program. Marine
mammals are too protected in the US waters: the Governor and the whole
state of Alaska rejected Sea World's request to capture their killer
whales, so they look to Japan. Japan looked to Norway in 1999, who
denied permits to capture whales based on public outcry and opposition.
Lest you be confused over the "education versus entertainment value" of
marine parks, George Millay, Sea World's founder, cleared it up in 1989
when he said; "Sea World was created strictly as entertainment. We
didn't try to wear this false façade of educational significance." Sea
World's entrance fee is $30 US for children and up to $58 US for adults.
Since the early 1980's aquariums have become the trend in the US
to revitalize cities and waterfronts. Witness the Monterrey Bay Aquarium
in California: even with an entrance price of ??$ it still attracts over
2 million visitors a year. But that's not enough: now they want to be
the first to have a great white shark (life span in captivity: 3 weeks)
to draw in more paying customers. The top six aquariums in the States
average at least a million visitors a year, with each trying to
out-compete the other for the largest tanks (4.5 million gallons), the
most animals (124,000), the most rare species (beluga whales, great
whites) and now, the only whale sharks.
Newest on the list is Atlanta, Georgia with a 200 million USD
aquarium scheduled to open in 2005. They will boast the largest tank (5
million gallons), and two whale sharks, a male and a female. Who will
give up the whale sharks? Not Japan.but Belize? Belize, Land of the Free
by the Caribbean Sea?
The proposal is underway. Belize has just 106 identified whale
sharks, only 5 of which are female. Removing a female would be reducing
the breeding potential by 20%, and removing any two sharks would be
removing two too many. Last season Tour Guides saw at the most eight
sharks, whereas in previous years they saw up to 22.
Don't let the propaganda fool you: there has been zero success
for captive breeding and reintroduction of marine animals to the wild.
So what will they learn about the whale shark behind glass? Not its
population, nor its distribution, not even its natural feeding or mating
habits. They will learn, as Japan did, that the whale shark feeding
requirements are up to 11% of its body mass!
Remember what the late-great Jacques Cousteau said, "No
aquarium, no tank in a marine park, no matter how spacious it may be,
can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea".
If you have an opinion on this, call the Fisheries Department
and voice your concern! 223- And call Friends of Nature in Placencia,
523-3377, let them know what you think. Because animal welfare aside,
the real question for Belize is whether or not a tourist will still pay
$1000's of US dollars and brave the rough seas for a chance encounter
with a whale shark in the wild when they could spend mere 100's to be
guaranteed one behind glass.
Thanks to Rachel Graham and the Darwin Institute for providing
information for this article. If you would like more information on
captive marine mammals, Japanese drive fisheries, whale sharks, or
anything else mentioned in this article, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.