Ocean Conservation hits murky waters

Recently the East African Whale Shark Trust based in Diani beach in Kenya has come out with an idea to capture wild whale sharks to be put into a 500mtr enclosure. Apparently the idea is that tourists will be brought in groups of 10 (and an estimated 40-50 people a day) will be able to dive with the whale sharks lead by a trained diver. Where do we draw the line between responsible tourism and conservation?

EAWST claims that some of the revenue will benefit local communities, whale shark research and conservation. He has stated he will be rotating the fish every six months, ensuring that they do not spend their lives in captivity and providing an opportunity for observation of several different sharks. Even though whale sharks have been proven 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 fishing pressure and the shark fin trade.But this is information was put out by the same group that wants to enclose them in ‘sanctuaries’-it would be good to have independent study.

Whale sharks are facing increased pressure from overfishing, but does that justify this kind of project? Conversely is a whale shark in “captivity” is 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 chance that this could not 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 lion in a wildlife park, but surely the reason 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 fishing pressure, 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.

If education is the aim the maybe 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 to not kill for the fins, then well meaning education can only have a very varied impact, especially in a country where people are facing very real poverty and increasing need an avenue of income for their families.

My biggest concern is that Kenya does have a very complicated reputation when it comes to how they manage their environmental laws and regulations, and there would not be many repercussions if something were to go wrong. If we have the ability and the chance to avoid creating a ‘marine zoo’, surely we should take that route over a tourism fueled, unnatural experience?

What are your thoughts?


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