A whale shark being tagged by one of the MigraMar scientists. Credit: César Peñaherrera, MigraMar
A whale shark being tagged by one of the MigraMar scientists. Credit: César Peñaherrera, MigraMar

On September 2019, as part of the Galapagos Whale Shark Project, a group of scientists led by Jonathan Green and Alex Hearn (MigraMar) in the vicinity of Darwin Island, north of the Galapagos Islands, fitted a whale shark with a satellite transmitter.

Given its beauty and size, the scientists on this expedition nicknamed this whale shark ESPERANZA (HOPE). The data that Esperanza’s transmitter was sending was followed, drawing the attention of young and old alike. The 7-meter-long whale shark, a young female that swam around the Galapagos, had been transmitting for eight months filling with pride everyone who followed its movements, particularly during these pandemic times when what we needed the most were good news.

Suddenly, in mid-May, the signal was interrupted. Assuming that this could be the result of the whale shark’s normal behavior— to dive and migrate to other locations—the people of Galapagos and mainland Ecuador eagerly awaited the return of the signal. The suspicions of a total loss of signal were confirmed when, a month later, ESPERANZA still didn’t show any signs of life. Scientists believe that ESPERANZA most likely found itself out of the water.

ESPERANZA transmission. Map used by Norman Wray on his Twitter account announcing its disappearance. Credit: Galapagos Whale Shark Project.
ESPERANZA transmission. Map used by Norman Wray on his Twitter account announcing its disappearance. Credit: Galapagos Whale Shark Project.

ESPERANZA was probably on a fishing boat, as part of the 500,000 tons of marine life caught in Ecuadorian waters every year. This was gloomily announced by Norman Wray, Head of the Galapagos Governing Council on July 24: “Heartbreaking Facts: Esperanza, Whale Shark – transmitter fitted on 09/2019. Stopped transmission 05/2020. Transmission lasted 280 days. “

The possibility of learning from this young whale shark, from its life, from its reproductive cycle, and from its visits to other waters, was lost forever.

A whale shark in Galapagos. Credit: César Peñaherrera, MigraMar
A whale shark in Galapagos. Credit: César Peñaherrera, MigraMar

We actually know little about whale sharks. We know that the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest fish in the world. We know that it lives in tropical waters. If we take an image of the globe and draw a band around the equator, we will be marking its distribution range. Whale sharks have different names. They are known as Mr. Fish, Tofu Fish, Domino, Lady Fish, Checkerboard. In Vietnam they are seen as a god; in China whale shark dishes are worth a lot of money; in places like Baja California and Quintana Roo in Mexico or in the Galapagos they are stars and thousands of tourists travel just to have a look at them.

The first time a whale shark was scientifically described was in South Africa in 1828. Scientists are not sure but they believe that whale sharks appeared more than 65 million years ago on Earth, sharing an era with Tyrannosaurus Rex. Their belly is white, and their back is dark gray and reddish with many white or yellow spots and lines. These marks become their own “fingerprint”. No two whale sharks have the same dot pattern.

We know that wherever a whale shark is found, there’s a lot of food. This is why whale sharks coexists with many other species that seek food, such as turtles, whales, other sharks, manta rays, and a great variety of fish. Whale sharks are gentle giants who, despite their large size, only feed on tiny marine organisms (plankton) such as shrimp, fingerlings, fish, and crustacean eggs. Sometimes their mouths are full of remora fish, which they calmly allow to pick food from their 350 rows of small teeth.

We also know that whale sharks are a pelagic species (open sea species) and that they approach the coastline for reasons that may be related to feeding and / or reproduction. Their skin is about 10 centimeters thick. Whale sharks are huge. Individuals up to 20 meters, the size of a truck, have been documented.

Watching whale sharks swim is quite a show. They move slowly, about 5 km / h, compared to sailfish that travel up to 110 km / h. This does not prevent whale sharks from traveling great distances. In 2018, a whale shark named ANNE traveled more than 20,000 km from Panama and across the Pacific in the span of two years and three months, until it reached the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth.

Whale sharks never sleep. They swim slowly while eating, opening their huge mouth and feeding on plankton—their favorite food— while filtering the water through their gills. They move around without being intimidated by the other fish, divers, or tourists who approach them. They reach their reproductive age at 30 years old and can live more than 100 years.

There are a lot of unknowns about whale sharks. Scientists don’t know how they move through the ocean, how or where they mate or how they give birth. Once, near Taiwan, a whale shark that carried more than 300 babies in different stages of development was harpooned. It is believed that they mate only once in a lifetime, storing sperm and fertilizing their own eggs when necessary.

Whale sharks are a species that fascinate us and their size and calmness captivate us.

Huge sums of money are invested just to see them. In Bahía de los Ángeles in México, an hour-long whale shark watching trip can cost up to $120. In the Maldives, the tourist income for whale shark watching is estimated at $9.5 million. In the Churami aquarium in Japan, the world’s largest pair of whale sharks wander sadly from side to side in a 7,500 cubic meter pool protected by the world’s largest glass screen, just to satisfy a misunderstood need for fun. Some of the sharks in the Churami exhibit have survived for only three days.

While we observe whale sharks behind a glass enclosure, or organize a vacation to swim alongside them, most end their days caught in a hook or trapped in a net, just Like ESPERANZA, who most likely died on the platform of one of the boats that belong to those highly technical fishing fleets that ply the waters near Ecuador.

Even though the fate of the majority of whale sharks goes completely unnoticed, it was not so with ESPERANZA, whose story took on international proportions when, on the same dates and in the same area where we lost its signal, a fleet of more than 260 highly technified vessels were detected on the edge of Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone, southwest of the Galapagos archipelago. An enormous number of vessels, considering that Ecuador, with its great fishing tradition and economic dependence on this industry, estimates that no more than 117 seiners fly its flag.

The international press, conservation organizations, the government and the people of Galapagos were asking questions about the fleets: Who are they? How do they fish? What do they fish? How much do they fish? Whose resources are these? Is it legal for them to load their marine warehouses this way? Could Esperanza have been a victim of this unregulated fishing activity in international waters? What can be done about it?

The bottom longline. A fishing gear that does not distinguish between species. Stock Image
The bottom longline. A fishing gear that does not distinguish between species. Stock Image

Fishing fleets in international waters take advantage of the few existing laws, making the seas a place where operations can be carried out without regulations or documentation, using unauthorized fishing gear, and without reporting their activity or position via satellite monitoring. Even though these fleets are mainly after squid and tuna, no species swimming in these waters is safe, be it a turtle, a whale, a manta, or a shark. Longline, seine and trawl fishing don’t distinguish between species or size.

In the midst of the upheaval caused by the news of another year in the face of this imposing fleet, Ecuador sent a banning notice to the Chinese government, who responded by saying that as of September they will withdraw their fleet from this area. This may sound like good news, but it is ultimately no more than the regular date in which these boats end their activities and return home with their load.

The situation that caused the loss of ESPERANZA and the presence of so many boats on the shores of the Galapagos reserve could have a good ending. An intense public debate has been opened and we see initiatives being activated on various fronts: At an international forum, the president of Ecuador pledged to expand the Galapagos Marine Reserve, the authorities of the region’s countries have increased their participation in forums on high sea regulations, and even in the midst of the pandemic, citizen demonstrations are being organized, authorities are looking for ways to impose greater controls within their limitations, and the very fishing industries that do not want to be labeled as predatory are seeking to participate or self-regulate. Maybe ESPERANZA’s short-lived life in the Galapagos waters was not in vain and could result in changes to laws and agreements.

There is still so much to resolve. It’s impossible to protect a species like the whale shark if we don’t have enough information about its habits and its life. How can you propose an informed conservation plan for an animal if you don’t know how, when and where it reproduces? How can we get any answers if at the time that science seeks them the subject ends up tangled up in a net or floating in a bowl of soup?

Meanwhile, we know that whale sharks, which were classified as a VULNERABLE species, raised their classification to ENDANGERED in 2016. Only two categories (Critically Endangered and Extinct in the Wild) are found between the whale shark and extinction. From a science point of view, we understand that we cannot prevent whale sharks from the danger of extinction if we do not understand how its life story works, therefore, we will continue to look for answers.

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