Kwale whale shark project based on bad science

Saturday April 6 2013

David Obura. Photo/FILE

David Obura. Photo/FILE 

By David Obura

Kenya has a special and little known treasure, its whale sharks. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, a magnificent spectacle increasingly attracting divers and tourists. And unlike real sharks, they don’t attack humans.

Now a project in Waa, Kwale district — proposed by the Seaquarium and the East Africa Whale Shark Trust (EAWST), both having a common director — aims to “conserve” whale sharks by capturing them and keeping them in captivity in a “viewing enclosure” over a coral bottom just 10 metres deep.

The two bodies make an unsubstantiated claim that whale shark numbers are declining in Kenya due to fishing, but their proposed solution would itself severely disrupt the whale sharks’ existence and by extension their population.

The EAWST’s own research shows that Kenyan whale sharks swim as far as the Seychelles, Tanzania and Mozambique, within a season. Whale sharks can regularly dive to depths of over 1,000 metres.

Imagine a similar project on land — a tourism operator in Narok proposes to catch two elephants from the plains around the Maasai Mara, drag them behind a truck by a leash tied to one foot, keep them in a small enclosure without any trees or shade, and exchange them every six months for another pair.

Their claim to expertise is their experience in game watching and basic observations of the elephants. Since the elephants will be kept outside, they are “in their natural environment.”

The project proposal misrepresents or misinterprets scientific information, or just leaves it out altogether.

The EAWST claims a decline in whale shark numbers and blames Bajuni fishermen. Large migratory animals can vary greatly in number from year to year.

The EAWST first started due to a massive increase in whale shark sightings in 2006 (an El Niño year). Now that these sightings have decreased, the EAWST explains the reduction as evidence for an implausible 93 per cent decline, without considering factors such as multi-year climate cycles.

They blame fishermen from Pate Island for the decline since 2006, presenting YouTube videos as evidence — even though no scientific or management reports have ever mentioned a fishery for whale sharks in Kenya.

The environmental impact assessment from GIBB Africa presents no information on the marine environment. Not even one mention of marine climate, seasonality, currents, plankton abundance or anything marine can be found in the EIA, whereas these are key variables in the whale sharks’ lifecycle and migration patterns.

The EIA is totally silent on the welfare of the whale sharks. They will be caught and tired to the point of exhaustion, then dragged to the enclosure, most likely backwards so they may not be able to breathe.

There is no mention of the risk that they may overheat in shallow waters. Nor of how many kilos of food a “small” 2 tonne, 6-7 metre whale shark needs per day, what its feed should contain, and how it will be obtained, delivered and its quality maintained.

They claim sufficient food will drift through the net enclosing the “park,” though whale sharks migrate thousands of kilometres to aggregate at rich current fronts that concentrate their food.

There are other significant questions to answer: What are acceptable levels of poor health or deaths of captive animals? What veterinarian and animal care measures must be in place, of sufficient standard for an endangered species? What is to stop the project releasing sick animals to avoid reporting deaths in captivity?

Aquaria and research institutes in the US, Japan and China, countries with finance, veterinarian and marine biological expertise that does not exist in Kenya, have held whale sharks in captivity for over 20 years — with zero success in mating, and at least five known deaths in captivity.

The assessment also omits discussion of the impact of the enclosure net, anchors and chain on the coral bottom and of long-term presence of the net on other fish or on Kenya’s protected turtles, nor of the pollution and nutrient build-up from feeding and the waste from the whale sharks. There is no mention of the impacts of the enclosure on access to fishing by local fishermen.

The EIA does not meet Nema’s requirements and should never have been submitted or accepted in such an incomplete state.

The project does not alleviate any significant threat to whale sharks, does not work with the communities it claims to be the threat to Kenya’s whale sharks, and has no broader value than being a potentially lucrative business venture. It may even pose a significant threat to whale sharks. The project detracts from Kenya’s branding as a premier destination for nature tourism.

Dr David Obura is the co-ordinator for CORDIO East Africa (Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean)