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Scientists have taken a giant leap forward in unlocking the mysteries surrounding the overall health of whale sharks. This species is the world’s largest fish, averaging around 18 to 32 feet long, and have been classified as endangered since 2016.
The groundbreaking research took place in Indonesia’s remote Cendrawasih Bay, where scientists were successfully able to collect blood, biological samples, take measurements and attach satellite tracking tags to a population of wild whale sharks. The new findings from this exciting health assessment will better inform conservative policies to protect and grow their population recovery in the future.
Researchers set up a field laboratory on their research vessel in Indonesia and will conduct further testing at a laboratory at the State University of Papua in Monokwari. The expedition was made possible through the collaboration between Georgia Aquarium, Conservation International (CI) and the Indonesian government. The combination of the Georgia Aquarium experts who care for whale sharks daily and the CI’s experience with local whale shark populations and strong relations with the Indonesian government made the mission a success.
Collecting data on whale sharks can be very difficult because of their migratory patterns. The species is constantly on the move making it hard to collect biological samples and perform health assessments. Cendrawasih proved to be the perfect place to collect this information because of the unique interaction between fishers and whale sharks. The fishers target schools of baitfish and lure them into nets with lights where the whales sharks then move in on the free feast.
In 2015, scientists were able to deploy the world’s first fin-mounted archival satellite tags on a wild whale shark. This allowed researchers to collect movement data of the large fish which has helped to inform the management and conservation of the species in Indonesia. This type of data is extremely important in sustainably managing whale shark ecotourism in a way that benefits local coastal communities without negatively affecting the whale sharks.
The expedition that took place on August 2, 2017 resulted in successfully deployed fin-mounted satellite tags. These devices are expected to transmit valuable information on the shark’s movements and diving behavior for up to two years. Whale sharks are a true treasure to our oceans and it is vital that we do our part to help preserve these massive creatures.