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Two men try to surf on a whale shark, anger conservationists

By Megan Hamilton     Jun 22, 2015 in Environment
A video showing two men attempting to surf on the back of a rare whale shark has sparked the ire of conservationists who say the men should be prosecuted for their actions.
The video shows the men standing on the enormous shark while being towed by a speedboat, SkyNews reports. People on the boat can be heard laughing and egging them on.
Marine activists have called the men out for their "stupidity and arrogance."
One wildlife group, Marine Connection, posted the clip in the hopes that the men can be identified and "brought to justice," SkyNews reports.
Classified by the IUCN Red List as vulnerable, whale sharks (Rhyncodon typhus) can be easily stressed. Interaction with humans can affect their natural behavior, especially since they must move constantly in order to maintain their oxygen supply. They also must maintain a protective layer on their skin, so as IFLScience puts it, "standing on a whale shark is a pretty dumb move."
Sadly, these magnificent and gentle sharks are harassed and hunted by humans even though their populations are in decline, the IUCN reports.
As part of a three-year investigation conducted by WildLifeRisk, a non-governmental organization, evidence showed that one factory in southeastern China is slaughtering about 600 of these 21-ton (19-tonne) fish each year, National Geographic reports.
It's an illegal practice — whale sharks are protected under Chinese and international law, and for good reason. One single whale shark is worth about $30,000. The meat is sold for food, the fins are sold to restaurants to make shark fin soup, and the beautifully patterned skin is sold to manufacturers for bags. Oil from these sharks is sold to companies that produce fish oil supplements.
Sadly, this factory is also allegedly killing and processing other shark species that are protected under international law, including basking sharks and great whites.
"If they're in fact processing 600 a year, that's pretty horrifying," says Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. National Geographic notes that the worldwide population of whale sharks is estimated to be in the thousands.
Hueter recounted another instance in which whale sharks were being killed. A legal fishery in Taiwan slaughtered approximately 800 whale sharks between 1995 and 2008. Fortunately that fishery closed due to international pressure six years ago.
Whale, basking, and great white sharks are protected under CITES Appendix II, which means they aren't currently threatened with extinction, but "they may become so unless trade is closely controlled," the CITES website reports, per National Geographic.
Basking shark.
Basking shark.
While countries that have signed the treaty, which includes China, have to show that the export of species listed in Appendix II is done sustainably and legally, it's obvious that some individuals slip under the wire.
"What bothers me about this report is that this is an undercover operation going on in China," Hueter says. "So if there's one of these [factories], the chances that there's more than one are pretty good, I'm guessing."
Whale sharks are very widely distributed and occur in all tropical and warm temperate seas, with the Mediterranean being the only exception, the Florida Museum of Natural History reports. They are found throughout the Atlantic Ocean, ranging from New York through the Caribbean to Central Brazil and from Senegal to the Gulf of Guinea. They are also found in the Indian Ocean, ranging throughout most of the region, including the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. In the Pacific Ocean, whale sharks are found from Japan to Australia, off the coast of Hawaii, and from California to Chile.
Despite their size, whale sharks are peaceful, feeding mostly on microscopic plankton and nektonic (larger free-swimming) prey — crustaceans, schooling fishes, and tuna and squid every now and then. They are also fond of phytoplankton (microscopic plants) and macroalgae (larger plants).
These impressive sharks are the largest fish living today, and it's thought they can reach a maximum size of of 20 meters (65 feet). The smallest free-living juveniles are 55cm (21.7 inches) long. These fish may not attain sexual maturity until they are more than 9 meters long. And, while no one is completely certain, it's thought that these fish may live as long as 60 years, the museum reports.
Scientists had long wondered whether whale sharks were oviparous (in which case the female shark would expel egg cases from her body that would hatch on the sea floor), or if they are ovoviviparous, with the egg cases hatching inside the mother's uteri, meaning that she would give birth to live young. This question was finally answered in 1995, when an 11-meter female whale shark was harpooned off the eastern coast of Taiwan and 300 fetal sharks were taken from her two uteri. So, this means that whale sharks are live bearers.
Whale sharks are usually considered harmless to humans, but they have on occasion butted sportfishing boats, most likely because they were being harassed. They face risks of being struck accidentally by boats when basking or feeding on the surface, the museum reports.
It's believed that the video showing the two men standing on the shark's back was filmed in Venezuela, Marine Connection notes, largely because of the type of Spanish people on the boat are speaking, Sky News reports. Not only that, but the footage was posted on a Facebook account in Venezuela earlier this month, and was deleted later on.
"Wildlife harassment is never a laughing matter," the group noted.
"What a sad reflection on their attitude to wildlife when, instead of considering themselves fortunate to see this majestic creature in the wild, they choose to participate in a stupid stunt like this."
It is to be hoped that if enough people watch the video, the would-be shark surfers will be found.
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