Whale Sharks Vulnerable to Boat Strikes

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Because whale sharks sometimes filter feed along the ocean’s surface, they are vulnerable to boat strikes. But determining how to protect a highly migratory species from vessel-related injuries is a challenging problem.

Rafael de la Parra, Project Domino research coordinator and biologist, told me that whale sharksswim slowly, filtering the plankton-rich seawater… so they are not aware of approaching vessels.”

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Each year, just off the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, hundreds – and possibly thousands – of whale sharks aggregate to feed on abundant fish roe. As a local resident, de la Parra observes this local whale shark population frequently, and he has spotted whale sharks firsthand that display a wide variety of boat strike wounds.

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Dr. Robert Hueter, Director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory, shared at the 2010 Whale Shark Festival in Isla Mujeres that “it is common for whale sharks to have scars and evidence of a boat strike… propellers often cut up dorsal fins or down the whale shark’s back… but a remarkable thing about whale sharks is that they are often able to sustain these wounds and heal very rapidly.”

Shipping channels pose a serious threat to whale sharks. If boat drivers are negligent in driving their vessel while in Mexico’s ‘afuera’ aggregation zone, whale shark injuries may be inevitable.

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“Ecotour operators are the most conscious ones,” says de la Parra. “They are trained to practice extreme careful driving in the whale shark areas, as slow speed is mandatory in the zone… Project Domino is promoting and submitting fund proposals to obtain and deploy a marker buoy on the ‘afuera’ that can help inform and communicate [the whale shark population] to all boat traffic that comes through this area.”

Although there may be hundreds of thousands of whale sharks living in our oceans, they are currently a threatened species and vulnerable to extinction. And as these creatures are highly migratory, collaboration between countries is imperative to ensure the conservation of the whale shark species.

Learn more by reading my case study on researching wild whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo Credits: Rafael de la Parra, Marvin Perez, Odin Novelo Moguel and Georgia Aquarium