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Why are whale sharks important?

Article by Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah

Posted: March 20, 2023

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world and are known for their gentle and curious nature. These majestic creatures can grow up to 12 metres in length and weigh over 20,000 pounds. Despite their massive size, whale sharks feed mainly on plankton and small fish, making them harmless to humans. They can be found in warm, tropical waters all around the world, from the Caribbean to the coast of Australia.

Whale sharks are not only fascinating creatures to observe, but they also play a crucial role in the marine ecosystem. In this article, we will explore the ecological and economic significance of whale sharks, the threats they face, and the conservation efforts that are being made to protect them.

Ecological Significance of Whale Sharks

Whale sharks are important for maintaining the balance of the marine food chain. They feed on plankton and small fish, which are abundant in the ocean, and are in turn preyed upon by larger fish and sharks. By regulating the population of smaller fish, whale sharks help to ensure that other marine species have enough food to survive.

In addition to their role in the food chain, whale sharks are also important for nutrient cycling in the ocean. They excrete nutrients in their waste, which helps to fertilise the surrounding water and support the growth of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is the base of the marine food chain, and plays a vital role in producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Whale sharks also contribute to the biodiversity of the ocean. As they migrate across different regions, they help to disperse nutrients and plankton, which can benefit other marine species. In addition, their presence can indicate the health of an ecosystem. Healthy whale shark populations are a sign of a healthy and thriving marine environment.

Economic Significance of Whale Sharks

Whale sharks have significant economic value in the tourism industry. People from all over the world travel to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. Countries such as Mexico, the Philippines, and Thailand have developed eco-tourism industries centred around whale shark sightings. Tourists pay to swim alongside these gentle giants, providing a source of income for local communities and generating revenue for the national economy.

Whale sharks also have economic importance in the fishing industry. In some countries, such as Taiwan and the Philippines, they are caught for their meat, fins, and oil. However, the economic value of live whale sharks in the tourism industry is far greater than their value in the fishing industry. In fact, many countries have banned the hunting of whale sharks in order to protect their populations and the tourism industry.

Whale sharks are also valuable for biomedical research and innovation. Scientists have found that the unique characteristics of whale shark skin can be used to develop new products, such as antibacterial coatings for medical devices and textiles. The study of whale sharks can also provide valuable insights into the biology and physiology of other marine species.

Underwater view of whale shark swimming with school of fish

Threats to Whale Sharks

Despite their ecological and economic importance, whale sharks face a number of threats. Overfishing and bycatch are two major threats to whale shark populations. Many countries have banned the hunting of whale sharks, but they are still caught accidentally in fishing nets and lines. Habitat loss and degradation are also major threats to whale sharks. As human activities such as coastal development and pollution continue to impact the marine environment, whale shark habitats are being destroyed and degraded.

Climate change and ocean acidification are also major threats to whale sharks. These phenomena can disrupt the ocean’s food chain, reduce the availability of prey, and make it difficult for whale sharks to survive. In addition, changes in ocean temperatures and currents can affect the migration patterns of whale sharks, making it difficult for them to find suitable habitats.

Conservation Efforts for Whale Sharks

There are many efforts being made to protect whale sharks and ensure their survival. One of the most important measures is the creation of international and regional laws and regulations to protect whale sharks. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has listed whale sharks as a protected species, and many countries have implemented their own laws and regulations to protect them.

Protected areas and marine reserves are also important for the conservation of whale sharks. These areas provide a safe haven for whale sharks to feed and mate, and they can help to ensure the long-term survival of the species. In addition, public awareness and education campaigns can help to raise awareness about the importance of whale sharks and the need for conservation.

Marine Conservation Volunteering with GVI

GVI’s marine conservation programs are designed to provide volunteers with hands-on experience in marine conservation. Volunteers work alongside experienced marine biologists and conservationists to collect data on marine life and ecosystems. This data is used to monitor the health of marine ecosystems and inform conservation efforts.

Volunteers in GVI’s marine conservation programs participate in a variety of activities and projects. These may include conducting marine surveys, monitoring coral reefs, collecting data on marine mammals and sharks, and cleaning up marine debris. Volunteers also have the opportunity to learn about marine biology and conservation, and to explore the local culture and environment.

While you might not be able to volunteer directly with whale sharks, you can learn more about the marine ecosystems where they thrive, and while volunteering at GVI’s base in Puerto Morelos you have the chance to go and see whale sharks for yourself. 

In conclusion, whale sharks are important for both ecological and economic reasons. They play a crucial role in the marine food chain, nutrient cycling, and biodiversity, and they are a valuable source of income for the tourism industry. However, they face a number of threats, including overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change.

Conservation efforts, such as protected areas, public awareness campaigns, and marine conservation volunteering programs, are essential for ensuring the survival of whale sharks. By working together to protect this magnificent species, we can help to ensure the health and sustainability of the ocean and the planet as a whole.

By Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah is a freelance writer from New Zealand with a passion for outdoor adventure and sustainable travel. She has been writing about travel for more than five years and her work has appeared in print and digital publications including National Geographic Travel, Conde Nast Travel, Business Insider, Atlas Obscura and more. You can see more of her work at petrinadarrah.com.
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