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Quietly, Without Fanfare, Another Step Forward in Protecting the World’s Largest Fish

Posted On February 19, 2015 by

In June of 2013 the international body that manages tuna fish in the Eastern Pacific Ocean drafted and approved a resolution to protect whale sharks. The resolution isn’t groundbreaking; the New York Times didn’t report, Anderson Cooper wasn’t on the scene, and Greenpeace didn’t raise the flag. In fact, in the year it took to make U.S. compliance official via rulemaking in September 2014, even the fish-heads and whale shark lovers here at Ocean Conservancy barely noticed. This is a good thing.

Too often fisheries management is mired in relatively small, but high-profile, fights. The fact that the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) quietly prohibited tuna fishermen, who hail from many nations around the Pacific, from using whale sharks as de facto Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) marks another small but important step towards saving some of the world’s most iconic species and preserving a healthy ocean.

FADs are physical objects placed in the ocean by fisherman that encourage fish to congregate around them. They make catching multiple fish at a single time easier. In this case some fishermen were using a live “FAD,” aka the whale shark, as a way to catch fish. Unfortunately they were catching the whale shark at the same time. But no longer, at least by international agreement.

It is perhaps fitting that such a small victory was regarding such a large animal. Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, and are objectively one of the most beautiful creatures that live in the ocean. Often confused with whales (for obvious reasons) they are striking creatures with highly distinctive coloration and grow as large as school buses. They are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with fishermen in some parts of the world still targeting them for food. Their life history traits make them especially vulnerable to overfishing though, and beyond new measures like the one made by the IATTC, additional efforts around the world are needed to ensure their survival. Fortunately, other small, lower-profile efforts are already underway in other parts of the world…

Donsol, Philippines. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), in collaboration with the local government, operates an eco-tourism program where domestic and foreign tourists swim with whale sharks, while ensuring conservation measures are met… Former local fishermen are employed as guides, and boat operators spend the season motoring snorkel-clad tourists between whale sharks and the beach. Donsol, a sleepy town on the southern tip of the island of Luzon, has emerged as a destination resort town with whale shark tourism supporting much of the local economy. Hand-painted whale sharks grace the walls of the local elementary school, and the smell of delicious Bicolano cooking (think seafood meets coconut and chili pepper) wafts from the town center. Donsol serves as an example of how some species are worth more in the water than in a net to the local community – the economic effects from tourists and the value of the whale sharks to the natural ecosystem outweigh the money to be gained through the sale of whale shark as meat.

This model is taking root across the globe, as coastal towns like Donsol support themselves economically and conserve natural resources at the same time. These communities are well-aware of the conservation threats and consequences that exist in their waters, but lack of local opportunity can leave people with little choice, but to harvest local resources as a matter of survival. Local innovations are now giving people other choices.

The ocean needs these small, barely noticed victories, as they add up to a larger picture of a world that cares deeply about the state of our oceans. They are politically inexpensive, but they matter. They also important because they are forward-looking – resolving and preventing issues that are relatively small now, but could become a much larger threat if allowed to continue and grow. A single platform cannot provide the depth or breadth needed to solve a problem as large and complex as preserving the ocean’s biggest fish. Diplomats and bureaucrats making quiet, low-profile advances, and coastal communities trying something new in hopes of economic security and conservation, these are vastly different arenas and actors but both necessary. They aren’t sexy, and don’t get much attention, but are vital to ocean politics and management that can maintain a thriving ocean.