Whale sharks receive different levels of protection in different parts of the world. For example in the Philippines, India, and Taiwan, all fishing, selling, importing and exporting of whale sharks is completley banned. But in other parts of the world they are a lot more vulnerable to exploitation.
The whale sharks in the Gulf of Tadjoura do not seem to be at risk of a fishery. The locals here understand that the sharks are worth far more alive than dead, as they’re a valuable resource in ecotourism, both for local and foreign divers (this is the case in many parts of the world, including Mexico and the Maldives, where locals have turned from fishermen into eco-tour operators.) Also, Djibouti has many foreign military bases dotted around its shorelines, so illegal fishing fleets appear not to venture here.
This however does not protect the sharks holistically. The sharks only appear here when the seasonal upwelling brings plankton rich water into the gulf. When the food isn’t here, the sharks go elsewhere (exactly where is currently a mystery) and are then vulnerable to exploitation.
One thing we have noticed with the sharks here, is that many of them show obvious signs of collisions with boats, in the way of either scars or very fresh wounds from propellors. This is not uncommon, as even though whale sharks are capable of diving to depths in excess of 1000 meters they spend 60% of their time in water 10 meters deep or shallower (a recent scientific paper puplished by SOSF project leader Juerg Brunnschweiler, outlines the movements of a tagged whale shark that traveled to a depth of 1286m in the Mozambique channel). Some of the whale sharks here in Djibouti also have large fishing hooks in their tails, their flanks and sadly even in their eyes. These are an predictable result of recreational fishermen trawling in areas that whale sharks frequent, and are stark reminders of how man can accidentally and unknowingly cause significant damage upon marine life.
Harm being caused to whale sharks by man is not always accidental however, today we saw something far more sinister than we’d seen previously.
The shark in question, a 4 meter male, has now been affectionately and somewhat unimaginatively been named ‘Rope-Tail’. As you may have guessed, it has a rope around it tail. What makes this so sinister, is that the rope has been deliberately tied there, its not somehow been accidentally been wrapped around the animal as caan sometimes happen with sharks, whales, dolphins and turtles. It’s highly likely that this was an attempt at capturing and killing the shark.
We made a number of attempts to cut the rope from the shark, but at first the knife we were using was too blunt to get through the thick line, and then the shark started to become very weary around us. Perhaps it was reminded of the trauma it must have gone through when the line was first attached, or perhaps us touching the rope was causing it more pain.
Seeing this was a really sad reminder of the fragility of these amazing creatures. Despite being the largest fish in the sea, they are incredibly vulnerable. This is why SOSF is sponsoring so much research work into the behaviour and movements of whale sharks. SOSF currently supports whale shark research in the Seychelles, Brazil, Mexico, Mozambique. Go to our projects page to read more.
We’ll attempt to get cut the lassoo off of ‘Rope Tail’ if we see the him again, and if he lets him get close engough for long enough to cut it away.