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A Whale Shark Fairy Tale

By: Marilyn Koukol

Date Posted: 2000-03-10

A wonderful fairytale-like article appeared recently in a local newspaper. It was all about these huge whale sharks that get tangled in a “precious” net. Then the kind fishermen come along and rescue these gentle giants. The sharks are nursed back to health inside a net enclosure. They “smile” when divers come to visit them and bring them food. And, in keeping with any fairytale ending, the whale sharks, the fishermen, and the divers then live happily ever after!

Everyone loves a good fairytale and that is just what this article resembles. In the first place, these peaceful whale sharks would never have been hurt, entangled, or weakened had it not been for the net. And, who placed this net in their liquid home just off the shores of Yomitan? Why... the kindhearted fishermen of course! Why not allow these wild creatures to recover naturally instead of entrapping them once again in a water-filled cage where some refuse to eat for weeks? Is there really research being conducted, or could making a profit be the answer?

Fishing nets endanger not only whale sharks, but also small reef sharks, beautiful blue lined snappers, and an array of colorful fish. Photos taken in Nago Bay show these decaying creatures hanging limply in the fishermen’s nets. Were these fish used for sale or for food? Well, the scavenging murex, lionfish, and remoras fed on these carcasses, but it is doubtful that the fishermen reaped much profit from them. What an unnatural and nonproductive death for these creatures! Old nets floating and drifting in the ocean’s currents are indiscriminate killers of sea life both big and small. Eventually these rotting nets will settle on the fragile coral destroying once again an entire colony of beautiful marine life. Oh yes, it must indeed be a fairytale if nets are considered “precious”!

Every fairytale must have a hero! In this story the “Salt of the Earth” fishermen who save the whale sharks and place them in a “home” net to protect them from their natural predators are the heroes. So, who are the wicked and wretched villains from which they require protection? There is no other creature on this Earth who has endangered and harmed the oceans more than “Homo sapiens.” This gruesome human species has dumped DNA altering chemicals into the ocean water; polluted the coastline with oil, plastic, and every form of garbage imaginable; bloodied bays and rivers with the slaughter of dolphins and whales; killed numerous coral reefs with silt runoff from modern development; and over fished entire seas so that only algae appears in the sun-beam filled water. HumÖand yet the dictionary states that homo means “man” and sapiens means “wise!” This fairytale is definitely becoming confusing, and it is difficult to tell the heroes from the villains.

Visiting the Aquarium at Expo Park and seeing another one of the rescued whale sharks will surely paint a brighter picture for our fairytale fish. Unfortunately, there is no appearance of a “smile” as this docile giant sweeps by the green-tinted glass of the aquarium case. Oh no, look at the whale shark’s tail! It is folded up like a flap on an envelope! Could this deformity been caused by constant dragging on the aquarium bottom? And, what are those large white growths near the tip? Hopefully they aren’t life threatening! This whale shark does not seem to be in a “win-win” situation. The only thing it might win is a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most circular revolutions in a miniscule aquarium tank. The only bright spot in this picture is that it costs only around $5.00 to visit this friend rather than the $95.00 or $130.00 to visit the others.

Families also play an important role in fairytales. This story reveals “sea-fairing families” who are “peaceful and peace-loving people”. (Oh good, this doesn’t sound like Cinderella’s family at all!) It also states that “these gentle fishermen have a love for the ocean and a respect for the life it sustains” and that it has been this way for centuries! HumÖ so then what is the explanation for the photo taken in the 1950’s that shows Okinawan fishermen in their tiny boats herding dolphin and pilot whales into Nago Bay? Was it for their “protection”? So then why would these “respectful” Okinawan forefathers be using clubs and spears on these intelligent mammals? Could it be to kill them? Oh, no! This fairytale is becoming way too grim!

The alarm is sounding and it is time to wake up from this fairy tale dream and face the reality of the great perils that the oceans of our world are currently enduring due to our “wise man” actions. The rose colored lenses of the scuba masks need to be removed so that the “lose-lose” situation of our ocean habitat can be viewed clearly. There is only one Earth. The actions of “ wise men” impact this planet whether in Kansas, Kyoto, Kuala Lumpur, or the Kremlin. It is senseless to place the blame on any one nation, but very important to learn from all of our past mistakes!

A recent issue of Ocean Realm (Autumn 1999) is filled with examples of these mistakes, and they serve as reality checks for one and all. Gillnets in the mid-Atlantic brought in ten tons of swordfish along with 35 marine turtles, 293 whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals. These nets kill 2,000 harbor porpoises a year. In another article (TRAFFIC, 24 February 1999) it is stated that Canada has raised the commercial harp seal hunt quota to over 250,000 seals even though research has indicated that these cute and cuddly creatures had nothing to do with the depletion of the cod. (HumÖ no codfish to cause damage or bring profit to these nets!)

A moorish idol’s black and yellow stripes begin to fade into the pale white after dynamite fishing rocks the reef in Myanmar (Burma). Similar fishing practices resonate off the coasts of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sipadan, in Malaysia. Sipadan, once famous for it’s immense Green Sea Turtle populations, find these counts declining each year due to the encroachment of more dive resorts on this tiny island’s limited nesting grounds.

Japan took over 6,065 tons of endangered Bluefin Tuna in 1998 and killed 389 minke whales last year in the name of “research” (World Wildlife Fund, 3 May 1999). It seems that “research” is a band-aid term used to make this rape of the reef acceptable and all-better! The dolphins in captivity at the Renaissance Hotel in Okinawa are also being used for research. Although, tourists must pay a substantial amount to wade in the water with them and listen to the experts explain how they have trained these dolphins. And, of course the captive fairytale whale sharks are being observed for research purposes too. True, true, research is costly! It cost the minke whales their lives, and the dolphins and whale sharks their freedom.

Even locally here on the beaches of the East China Sea, school children have a true eye-opening experience when they discover a sea turtle, not swimming gracefully in the crystal blue waters, but being devoured by maggots and hermit crabs. They wonder what caused this death? Was it due to the turtle’s ingestion of plastic instead of jellyfish? Was it because improperly treated water was being dumped into the sea? Or, had the turtle been trapped in a net until suffocation occurred? And, what about the sea bird rescued by a young girl during a local beach clean up? Did the bird survive after the hook was removed from its mouth and the fishing line unwrapped from around its body?

These questions will never be answered for certain. But, maybe these young children and others throughout the world will learn from these sad (but true) experiences. Hopefully they will be the ones filling the roles as national leaders throughout the world for future G-8 Summits. It is hoped that they will act as “wise men” and ignore the pleas for more development, more profit, larger kill quotas for marine life, and more freedom for the indiscriminate disposal of waste products. If they focus on the Real Ocean Story, instead of a fairytale, they will not believe that “diving face to face with a (trapped) whale shark is an experience that is beyond description.” They will know how it feels to see one of these miniature spotted submarines appear from the open ocean. They will tremble with excitement while swimming freely beside these gentle giants and peering into their tiny eyes. They will respect these peaceful creatures enough NOT to grab a dorsal fin for a “free” ride. And, imagine how they will feel watching the spots blur into the blue as this largest of all fish disappears into its true home - the open ocean! That is truly an experience beyond description!

Now is the time to act wisely in order to save our oceans!

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