Australia Protects World's Largest Living Fish

CANBERRA, Australia, November 1, 2001 (ENS) - Australian Environment Minister Robert Hill has listed the whale shark, the world's largest fish, as nationally threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity and Conservation Act. In making the announcement late last month, Senator Hill said there is evidence of a substantial decline in numbers of whale sharks.

A whale shark can grow up to 18 meters (58 feet) long and weigh more than 20 metric tons. Whale sharks reach sexual maturity at around 30 years of age, when they are around nine meters (29 feet) long.

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Whale shark in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (Photo courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The whale shark is globally rare. Prior to the mid-1980s, there were only 350 confirmed reports of whale sharks worldwide. Even now, only one pregnant whale shark has ever been recorded and it is not known where they breed.

Whale sharks migrate thousands of miles to feeding grounds in many countries. "While migration patterns are poorly understood," the minister said, "we know from satellite tracking that some individual sharks migrate up to 12,000 kilometres (7,440 miles)." These migrations may take years to complete.

"The Australian population of whale sharks is shared with other countries in our region," said Hill. "Unfortunately, whale sharks are still hunted in some countries in the region. This has led to a substantial decline in the regional population, which in turn has reduced the Australian population of whale sharks."

The fins of these giant sharks bring high prices in the markets of Asia. In 1999, a single whale shark fin was reported on sale in China for US$15,000.

Australia supports listing of the whale shark under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which will help promote international efforts to protect the species.

The United States submitted a proposal to the 11th CITES Conference of the Parties in April 2000 calling for whale sharks to be included on Appendix II of the treaty. That status would permit limited and monitored international trade in whale sharks and their parts.

The whale shark is found in tropical and warm temperate seas, inhabiting shallow and deep coastal waters as well as lagoons, coral atolls and reefs.

Hill said, "The whale shark is a magnificent, gentle creature, closely related to the wobbegong shark. It grows to 20 metres long and has a pattern of lines and spots that provides camouflage in its ocean environment."

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Whale sharks do not bite or chew but filter food into their mouths. (Photo courtesy WWF)
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is working to protect whale sharks around the world. In 1999, WWF led the conservation community's successful effort to establish a global plan of action for shark conservation at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Now WWF is working to secure effective implementation of the plan of action by reporting an overall adherence to plan objective by states and regional fishing organizations, and by intervening in selected, key shark fisheries in the Pacific.

In the Philippines, where fishing for this species is prohibited, poaching still persists. Development of new fishing sites have been reported in Malaysia and India to supply the increasing international demand for whale shark products, WWF says.

Hill says, "Australia is perhaps the last stronghold for the whale shark. In Australian waters, whale sharks congregate at Ningaloo, Western Australia, at Christmas Island and in the Coral Sea. These seasonal aggregations, which are believed to be related to food pulses in each location, are rare elsewhere in the world."

Whale sharks are filter feeding sharks. They feed on minute organisms including krill, crab larvae and jellyfish. Their 3,000 tiny teeth are not used while feeding.

Senator Hill said that the whale shark is a major attraction for ecotourism in northwest Western Australia. The whale shark watching industry in Ningaloo is worth around A$6 million each year.

In addition to the whale shark, the northern river shark has also been listed as nationally threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity and Conservation Act.