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Environment

Viral whale shark video prompts calls for Hong Kong to tighten laws and protect endangered species

It is legal to catch and kill the world’s largest fish in local waters, and little is known about them in the region because of limited research

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 June, 2018, 8:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 June, 2018, 10:52pm

An online video of a whale shark earlier this week in Hong Kong went viral on Thursday, as sightings of the world’s largest fish in local waters are rare.

Marine life experts have called on the government to introduce laws to protect the endangered species, citing better measures in neighbouring countries.

Lamma Island resident Robert Lockyer, who posted the video on his Facebook page, said the footage was sent to him by one of the fishermen who encountered the shark on Tuesday.

Lockyer, who is a member of the environmental group Eco Marine, said there had been another local sighting on May 22, but he believed it was a different shark at another location.

In Thursday’s video, the whale shark is seen swimming around the fishermen’s boat.

Whale sharks are slow-moving filter feeders that can grow to 12 metres (40 feet). They feed on plankton and are not known to pose a threat to humans.

The fishermen can be heard laughing and cheering in the background, with one identifying the fish by its local Hong Kong name Fa Sha, or spotted shark, presumably because of the white spots that cover its body.

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Lockyer declined to reveal where the shark was spotted, because the fisherman who sent him the video did not wish for his identity or the location of the sighting to be known.

“[The fisherman] needs to protect the fish and his fishing spot,” Lockyer said. “In Hong Kong, it is legal to catch and kill this fish, so I will not say where.”

Dr Andy Cornish, who leads conservation organisation WWF’s global shark and ray initiative, is familiar with the sighting but also declined to reveal the exact location. He said it happened in Hong Kong’s southern waters.

Cornish said the fish was “definitely juvenile” and estimated it was about four metres long. He said a smaller fish spotted in the video attached to the shark’s head was called a sharksucker, a marine hitchhiker which rides on large sharks, turtles and other animals, feeding off food scraps from their hosts’ meals.

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“We are very lucky to have the world’s largest fish appear in our waters,” he said.

Cornish said young, migrating whale sharks would appear off the Guangdong coast in the summer months every year. They normally swim further offshore but occasionally some would enter Hong Kong waters looking for plankton.

Although scientists knew whale sharks undertook long migrations, he said, it remained unknown where juveniles came from or where they were heading because of a lack of research in this part of the South China Sea.

Cornish said the endangered species was not protected in Hong Kong, unlike in the Philippines, mainland China and Taiwan.

“It is completely legal for somebody to catch the animal and kill it, and that has to change,” he said.

It is completely legal for somebody to catch the animal and kill it, and that has to change
Dr Andy Cornish, WWF

About a decade ago, according to Cornish, a local trawler fisherman accidentally caught a whale shark and kept it alive in the back of his boat in Aberdeen Harbour. He tried to sell the shark to Ocean Park but the animal eventually died.

“It really was tragic,” Cornish said.

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List updated the conservation status of whale sharks from vulnerable to endangered, indicating that the species faces a worsening situation and is being threatened by fishing activities and boat strikes.

The list is an inventory of the global conservation status of biological species.

Whale sharks are not sought for food, but their fins are sometimes sold as displays or trophies for restaurants. Recent surveys found whale shark fin prices going up, which meant the species could be increasingly targeted for its fins.

Last month, conservationists found whale shark fins in a 980kg batch of fins flown by Singapore Airlines into Hong Kong from Sri Lanka.