Whale Shark Wonder

How sweet it is to have one of the rarest, elusive, and not to mention the world’s largest fish (18 meters or 59 feet long) travel through Belize. Yes, whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) have been known to pay visits to Gladden Spit and the Silk Cayes. This is thought to be a result of the snapper spawning aggregations that the shark feeds on during the full moons of April through May. However, did you know that despite this occurrence little else is known about this fish? Scientists are researching whale sharks around the world to fill in some of the biological blanks of this mysterious species.

In Belize, whale sharks have been tagged with numerous markers in the hopes of learning more about the size and structure of whale shark populations as well as their foraging and migratory patterns. According to the University of York (2002), results show that these sharks are diving to depths of at least 700 meters or 2,296 feet, most likely in search of food. In addition to that the sharks tagged in Belize are now known to migrate up and down the Belize Barrier Reef and beyond to Honduras and Mexico. Whale sharks are very vulnerable to fishing pressures because of their late reproductive age, which occurs at 30-years-old when they are approximately 10 meters or 32 feet in length. At this time they give birth to live young and can produce as much as 300 young in one litter with a high mortality rate. Unfortunately, whale sharks receive barely any protection regardless of their fishing pressure vulnerability. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has not listed them as threatened despite the fact that they are caught in Southeast Asian waters for the fin, meat and cartilage markets. The University of York (2002) states that the sharks urgently need protection from the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Luckily, the tourism industry has begun to realize that whale sharks are worth more alive than dead. For this reason, countries such as the Maldives, Honduras, the Philippines, and India have passed laws to protect them. Even the disturbance or harassment from tourists can potentially harm whale sharks. However, if tours are provided by guides who are well educated about the needs of whale sharks this should not be a problem. In Belize, whale shark tour guides undergo such preventative training.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun

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