Whale shark conservation monitoring and the move to ecotourism as the sustainable alternative to hunting, India

The biological characteristics of the Whale Shark – the world’s biggest fish – make it extremely susceptible to overexploitation. Its large size, longevity and slow growth mean that recruitment is limited and populations are slow to recover from disturbance. Whale Sharks are also highly migratory making their conservation particularly challenging. The IUCN (World Conservation Union) lists the Whale Shark as Vulnerable, meaning that it faces a high risk of extinction. The species has declined rapidly over the past 20 years, with hunting a major factor. At present, ‘critical’ breeding habitats have yet to be defined, with only only two locations, off India’s and Taiwan’s coast, known to be places where pregnant sharks or new-born pups can be found. India was a major hunter of whale sharks until 2001; Taiwan is one of the few countries in the world that continues legal hunting.

Brad Norman is a world expert on the Whale Shark and has been working to conserve the species since 1995. In 2000 he successfully lobbied for the whale shark to gain full protection under Australian Commonwealth legislation. This project aims to extend this work to India, to increase conservation of the whale shark whilst helping communities to develop sustainable ecotourism as an altnerative to unsustainable shark hunting. Education will be an important part of the project. Stakeholders on the Gujarati coast (especially fishers) will be actively involved in the project and trained to use simple whale shark sighting data sheets to record shark sightings to build an accurate understanding of the number of whale sharks seen, the time of year and preferred areas. The data will be complemented by a plankton survey which will increase understanding of how changes in food abundance affect whale shark appearances. Local volunteers will be trained to collect and analyse samples, the results of which will determine where whale sharks are most often seen – these areas will be prioritised for protection and a feasibility study carried out to determine where would be the most effective place to set up an ecotourism operation whilst minimising disturbance to the sharks.

Little is known about the shark and its interaction with the ecosystem, but it is suspected that as a filter-feeder, the whale shark could be used as an effective indicator of ecosystem health. The project will inform and engage local research agencies and scientific institutions to collate all available information on historic whale shark landings and sightings along the Gujarati coast. Through the project, critical habitats for the sharks will be identified which will in turn enable more effective protection for long-term conservation of this threatened species.

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