Friday, April 27, 2007

Whalesharks in fish tanks?

[Above, me up close and personal with Mizzy Whaleshark during my recent whaleshark expedition in South Leyte, Philippines - photo compliments of Roh. More photos available in Rohan's album. Imagine if you could have experienced what I experienced.....from behind a glass panel....but that begs the question : at whose expense? The fella who entertains ya in the tank?]

Someone approached me sometime back for permission to use my whaleshark footage for a local project which contemplates putting a whaleshark in a tank. No prizes for guessing which project I'm referring to.

My initial reaction, being a diver and marine-life lover : how can one put a creature, regarded by many as being bigger than life, in a cage? What are the consequences of its being cooped up in a small confined unnatural space? Space was the least of one's concerns, given the larger ethical aspects of improper animal husbandry and the exploitation of wild, threatened or endangered animals for commercial purposes.

That gentleman then took the time to explain and justify to me how funds for wildlife education and research were hard to come by, and that proceeds from this mega project could be used for further whaleshark and dolphin research and to educate the public about these misunderstood creatures. Seize it while we can, for opportunities like these were hard to come by!

Having heard some of the arguments for and against putting a whaleshark in a fishtank, I was put in a dilemma. I started to draw a simple chart showing the pros and cons, but there were too many variables, and my simple stick drawing of a tree branched out into a complex banyan!

Some inital thoughts :-

- most of us know that it's inherently wrong to keep a nomadic and migratory fish like a whaleshark in a tank! Everything about it just shouts, "NO! DON'T DO IT!" The chances of its long-term survival proved very slim, given the recent statistics of captive whaleshark deaths! There are just too many variables which could go wrong. But then, could the same argument apply to other fish in aquariums? Or even animals in the zoo? Where do we draw the line? I once asked a marine biologist, who happens to be a director of the Underwater World, whether it was ok to keep a shark in a tank! The shocking answer was that fish are territorial, and so long as they feel comfortable within that territory and are well looked after, there should be no issue. Not what I expected from a marine biologist!

- the whaleshark was going to end up on someone's bowl anyway! Most of these captive whalesharks originate from Taiwan, where the whaleshark meat aka "tofu shark" is a very popular dish, probably feeding a gazillion families! So between the 2 evils, one an argue that a whaleshark in a fishtank in better than one in the bowl? However, given that Taiwan is in the process of restricting or perhaps even banning the fishing of whalesharks, where will these creatures be fished out from then? Will it encourage a live whaleshark fishing industry to replenish those that have kicked the bucket?

- not everyone has the good fortune of a face-to-face encounter with a whaleshark! Having returned from a recent whaleshark expedition in South Leyte, Philippines, it was literally raining "whaleshark"! Photo above was taken by fellow diver Rohan during one of our dives! Seeing the enormity of a BIG fish before your eyes, as opposed to seeing one through a 42 inch Sony TV, are two completely different experiences! I must admit that I dived in the Sentosa Underwater World and thoroughly enjoyed the experience! Whenever I visit a coastal state say in Hawaii or Monaco, the places that interest me most are the aquariums and oceanariums! You just can't feel for the fish til you've come up close and personal. Should this experience be made available to the common man in the street for a fee? Or only a privilege only divers or snorkellers are members of?

I'm sure there will be all sorts of arguments and rebuttals, and my chart is still work-in-progress. And so is part 2 of my whaleshark video.

The recent news about the whaleshark deaths just proves that there is no guarantee that a whaleshark in a tank will survive, even short term! Has anyone benefitted from their being in captivity during that 1 or so year? Did we learn more about this fish? Did it educate and awe the masses that contributed to the fish's welfare, and line the pockets of the stakeholders who benefitted from the show? If anyone has a view (and even better, statistics to prove), would love to hear from ya!

Meanwhile, if you're interested in this topic, there are good reads out there...

WildSingapore has kept an excellent archive on this debate :-

And Victor, who used to be WildAid's "Sharkspokesman", has been diligently feeding me with articles about whalesharks in captivity.

BTW, I told that gentleman that my whaleshark footage was available on utube if he ever needed to refer to it to educate the powers that be about this lovely creature! Hopefully they will have the good sense to do the research behind whalesharks in captivity before they embark on that project! Statistics do not lie!


Jeffrey said...

Statistics do not lie, but they can be manipulated :P

And it is good "cents" not "sense" :P :P


LingtheMerciless said...

Ah wise one Jeff. Dat is true!

Where can one find "truth" nowadays? Sigh!

Anonymous said...

Hi! I surfed in from Janice's LJ site. LOVED your whaleshark pictures!!! Could you share on more details of the divesite and dive co. you went with to see this awesome creature? Thanks!!!!