Whale sharks are some of the world’s largest animals and holds the record for being the largest vertebrate fish — they are indeed sharks, though like their whale namesakes, they filter feed as opposed to catching prey like other known shark species such as the Great White and the Bull shark. They are truly the ocean’s gentle giants — so why are they endangered?
What is a Whale Shark?
Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are a slow moving, filter feeding carpet shark and the largest known fish species in the entire world. The whale shark can be found in the open waters of tropical oceans and is rarely, if ever, found in water below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Whale sharks, notably, have very large mouths and are known as filter feeders, a feeding phenomenon that occurs in only two other shark species: the megamouth shark and the basking shark. The whale shark feeds almost exclusively on plankton, krill, and small fish, and pose virtually zero threat to the human population.
The name “whale shark” refers to the large size of the fish, some individuals getting to be as large as some species of whales and very notably utilizing the same feeding style as dozens of species of baleen whale.
What’s the Problem?
There are currently no accurate and exact estimates of the global whale shark population. Despite this, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has declared the species endangered due to the impacts of fisheries, by-catch losses, trash pollution, and vessel strikes. These factors, combined with the whale shark’s very long lifespan and very late maturation, spell recipe for disaster. This means that whale sharks are quite literally dying faster than they can reproduce — this alone is enough reason to be worried.
A phenomenon known as “whale shark tourism” is also one of the largest culprits in the whale shark’s endangerment status. Because these sharks are so harmless to humans, it’s quite popular amongst tourists and divers to get right into the water and swim alongside them. This might seem harmless, but it can severely interrupt whale shark feeding patterns and poses a threat of ship strike by nearby boat propellors.
How Can We Help Whale Sharks?
There are many ways to help out in the fight against the extinction of these gentle giants. We can do our part to protect whale sharks by choosing sustainably fished seafood, supporting governmental policies that protect sharks, and choosing tourism operators that minimize their impact on the environment while simultaneously educating their guests on the animals they take visitors to see.
Whale sharks are some of the ocean’s most gentle giants and have become endangered through no fault of their own. There is always research to be done and actions to be taken in order to ensure the safety of this species — and if we as humans work together and can be more careful with what we consume and how we consume it, whale sharks may not be a lost cause just yet.