Plight of the captive whale shark

Nov 25, 2015 by afdadmin
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Last week, following fierce public pressure, Village Roadshow ended its involvement in the establishment of a new marine park in Hainan, China. The controversy put the spotlight on dolphin and whale shark captivity; two species due to be captured from the wild for the aquarium.

The effects of captivity on bottlenose dolphins is well known. But the equally damaging effects of captive environments on whale sharks is far less publicised.

These gentle giants can live up to 100 years old. Despite their longevity, whale sharks are listed under CITES as being ‘vulnerable’ indicating a possibility of extinction, unless their safety is closely guarded. The primary threat to their survival is a growing demand for whale shark products, such as meat and fins.

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A whale shark in captivity. Credit:

While conservation is certainly a priority, confining whale sharks to tiny tanks for human enjoyment does not help. In fact, it has the opposite effect.  A study of 16 whale sharks kept at the Okinawa Expo Aquarium from 1980 to 1998 found they survived an average of 502 days in captivity – a far cry from their potential 100-year life span.

Captivity for entertainment is a vicious circle. When whale sharks die vastly premature deaths in tiny tanks, more are simply imported to replace those who suffered before them.  As in the case of two whale sharks imported from Taiwan to Georgia Aquarium, who died in 2007. Soon afterwards, two new whale sharks arrived in their place. What’s more, these new whale sharks were taken from cruel and unsustainable hunts in Taiwan – driving the species even further towards extinction.

Image by Aggressor Fleet.

Credit: Aggressor Fleet.

Whale sharks, like dolphins, travel long distances in the wild – up to 34 kilometres a day. They are also deeply submerged in their environment, swimming as low as 10 meters below sea level. Unsurprisingly, aquariums do not meet the natural needs of whale sharks. The Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan exposed the size of a tank for a whale shark kept in an aquarium in Pingtung County, Taiwan, as a mere 12 by 33 meters long; making the tank akin to a ‘jail cell’ for the whale shark. Shockingly, the Society found the shark would circle the small area up to 576 times during opening hours – slowly going mad with tedium.

A mother and baby whale shark. Credit: wildestanimal/ Moment/ Getty Images

A mother and baby whale shark. Credit: wildestanimal/ Moment/ Getty Images

While aiming to appear  educational and conservation-oriented on the surface, aquariums are designed with the needs and desires of the visitors in mind – not the animals. Quite simply, they put profit well ahead of animal welfare.

Placing whale sharks in aquariums is a death sentence. The same can be said for all marine life in captivity. Please take a stand against the terrible cycle of captive cruelty –