Recently the East African Whale Shark Trust (EAWST), based in Diani beach in Kenya, has come out with an idea to capture wild whale sharks and put them into a 500m enclosure. Tourists will then be brought in groups of 10, and an estimated 40-50 people a day will be able to dive with the whale sharks while being lead by a trained diver. There will be the transitional periods in which the EAWST will bring in two whale sharks and release the previous pair.
Mr Volker, director of EAWST, claims that some of the revenue will benefit local communities, whale shark research and conservation. He has stated that he will be rotating the fish every six months, to ensure they do not spend their lives in captivity and to provide an opportunity for observation of several different animals. Even though whale sharks have been proved to be highly migratory, according to EWAST, some whale sharks tend to stay longer along the Kenyan coastline all year round, making them vulnerable to fishermen looking for money from their fins.
Whale sharks are facing increased pressure from overfishing, but does that justify this kind of project? Is a whale shark in ‘captivity’ better than a dead whale shark poached for its fins? And does this captivity justify a tourism trade spinning off from it? A while back there was a video on the Internet of a similar idea in the Philippines, where children were riding on the back of a captive whale shark. Now while there might be a chance that this won’t happen in Kenya, I can’t help but cringe at the whole concept of this project.
Some might say that putting a whale shark in an enclosure is the same as putting a lion in a wildlife park, but surely the reason why we have had to put animals like lions in parks is because we have taken away most of their natural habitat? And while we have the very real threat of fishermen, surely tagging whale sharks and identifying where they are more likely to encounter fishing activity would be a better start than penning a few in. They will ultimately still end up swimming along the same coastline when they are released and out of the reach of supposed sanctuary protection.And what exactly will these whale sharks be fed? A new study by Motta et al in the journal Zoology provides information on how much whale sharks eat. They worked out that whale sharks spend about 7.5 hours per day feeding, consuming around 21 kilograms, or 46 pounds, of plankton per day! Would the sharks they plan to enclose need such large quantities over six months and where on earth are they going to get it?
If education is the aim then surely taking out locals and tourists to see whale sharks in their natural state, free from enclosures, is far better and more rewarding than watching them in a ‘zoo-like’ area? Whale sharks are killed for the monetary value of their fins and, honestly, if the fishermen are not provided with another incentive not to kill for the fins, then well-intentioned education can only have a very limited impact, especially in a country where people are facing extreme poverty and lack of a sustainable income. They might have a wonderful, experience with a whale shark, but will that address the fact that they still need money to survive, and if there are no alternative monetary schemes and no legal ramifications if they do catch, kill and sell the fins then realistically what is the incentive to stop? I have been told that the Waa community will be the ones on the receiving end of the education program going along with this incentive, and that the money raised could potentially provide some of the children with funding for further education, but what about the parents? Particularly their dad’s and any elder brothers who are generally the ones heading out to sea to do the brunt of the fishing. Education of the younger generation is essential for the future of marine conservation, but are we forgetting about the issues of the people directly involved in the use and conservation of our marine resources.
My biggest concern is that Kenya has a very complicated reputation when it comes to how they manage their environmental laws and regulations, and there won’t be many repercussions if something were to go wrong. There are other organizations, including EWAST, that conduct good scientific research and tagging on whale sharks along the East African coastline, if we have the ability and the chance to avoid creating a ‘marine zoo’, surely we should take that route.
Do you think things like this have a place in marine conservation or are they just another way to make money off eco-tourism? What are our responsibilities as tourists and travellers in researching the activities that we want to take part in when we go to other countries, and even in our own back yards?
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