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Swimming with Sharks: Playing dominoes in the sea

Swimming with Sharks: Playing dominoes in the sea

By Cinthya Flores Mora

Holbox Island, Quintana Roo, Mexico. But the business could kill the species.

Whale sharks are responsible for an exemplary eco-tourism project in the Mesoamerican Caribbean, one of the few places in the world where you can see this animal that reaches the size of a plane.
Holbox Island, Quintana Roo, Mexico. But the business could kill the species.

Known as "Domino" for its gray skin with white lines and dots scattered on its back and with a cream color on its underside. This docile ocean giant has a broad, flat head and can be up to 15 meters long and weigh more than 15 tons. It is indeed a shark, but the word whale is added to it because of its size.

Although this species seems dangerous, it does not really attack humans and rather allows swimming around it. It feeds on plankton that sucks in gigantic quantities, thereby helping to maintain the ecological balance of the Mesoamerican Reef, one of the 200 most outstanding ecoregions in the world according to a classification by the conservation organization WWF.

"Due to its characteristics, the tours to observe and swim with this fish, the largest in the world, are growing rapidly and without a planned development, so anticipating a possible environmental impact WWF started an education project with businessmen, community and government entities involved, "said Carlos García-Saez, coordinator of the WWF Mesoamerican Reef project.

The potential of this activity as a tourist alternative was discovered this year in the Mesoamerican Reef, and since then tourists from all over the world hire tours paying up to $ 250 per trip, which is a convenient business for fishermen whose daily income from fishing rises at $ 25 after an intense day in the sun and without the security of capturing enough to compensate for the work.

Aware of the accelerated growth of this business and anticipating an inappropriate development, WWF and its partners decided to initiate a process of dialogue with those involved to establish the regulations that allow the activity to develop profitably and without affecting the environment. A first workshop took place in Holbox, a Mayan island that is further north of the Yucatan peninsula and whose inhabitants consider the whale shark as their flagship species.

During this workshop held in May, the fisherman Wilbert Betancourt said that in his community they are "clear about the tourist potential of this huge fish, but they need more information because until now the tours have been a mess, anyone did what they wanted, it was a harmful spectacle. "

The whale shark project promoted by WWF includes support for the training of tour operators, the drafting of a legal framework, generation of scientific information, and strategies to combat asynchrony between the countries involved.

Pablo Ramos, WWF tourism officer, explained that it is a practice that is just starting, so there is a great information gap. "There are two key factors: first that it is tourism with high purchasing power and second that the species must be protected. Hence, before the business loses its course, we must continue promoting better management practices."

Seeing a whale shark is something exclusive, its appearances only occur in other regions such as the Philippines. It is listed as "threatened" in the list of species of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), in Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species which lists vulnerable species shared by several countries, and Appendix II of the International Convention on Endangered Species (CITES) that regulates its international trade.

To mitigate the effects of human contact with the whale shark, Ramos cited as an example WWF's support for the generation and application of approach rules such as the number of people present during a sighting, number of boats, distance and other preventive measures that they would be applied without distinction of borders.

"And it is that the trajectory of the whale shark is repetitive and ranges from the islands of the Bay in Honduras through Belize to the north of the Yucatan coast. This pattern of migratory movement allows ecotourism activities to be maintained throughout the year, but based on different countries depending on the month, "said Maricarmen García, delegate of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas of Mexico (CONANP), an institution that participates in the initiative.

"We still do not know well its value in maintaining biodiversity, but it is clear that its conservation directly benefits the reefs, habitat of the aggregations of fish whose eggs are the preferred dish of the whale shark," said Sandra Andraka, species program coordinator of WWF Central America.

"It is worth more alive than dead because it is a resource, a jewel of the sea. If we know how to take care of it, we will all win this game of dominoes," Andraka added.

* Cinthya Flores Mora is WWF Communications Officer for its Central American headquarters located in Costa Rica. WWF Central America - World Wide Fund for Nature - San Francisco de Dos Ríos - San José, Costa Rica.


Video: Relax and Watch Sharks Swim for 10 Hours (July 2021).