International Shipping Threatens Endangered Whale Sharks

International Shipping Threatens Endangered Whale Sharks

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, but even they can’t go up against a large shipping vessel and emerge unscathed.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday found that international shipping may be a “cryptic” cause of death for this endangered species.

“The maritime shipping industry that allows us to source a variety of everyday products from all over the world, may be causing the decline of whale sharks, which are a hugely important species in our oceans,” study co-author and University of Southampton Ph.D. researcher Freya Womersley said in a press release.

Whale sharks can grow to be up to 20 meters (approximately 66 feet). However, these gentle giants mainly feed on zooplankton. This means that they are very important for ocean ecosystems because they help control the plankton population. However, their population has declined by more than 50 percent in the last 75 years, Womersley and fellow co-author and University of South Hampton and Marine Biological Association (MBA) senior research fellow David Sims wrote in The Conversation. In 2016, they were officially declared endangered.

However, the reason for this decline is a bit of a mystery. Accidental or purposeful fishing is not believed to be a cause because the animals have been protected by international trade bans since 2003 and all whale shark fishing has ended. Scientists suspect that vessel collisions could be a problem because whale sharks often feed just below the ocean’s surface, putting them at risk for a crash. This is hard to determine, though, because a whale shark hit by a large ship would simply sink, leaving no evidence.

Lead Image: A whale shark. James D. Morgan / Contributor / Getty Images.

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