In May of this year, marine biologists published the results of research undertaken back in 2016, when a remarkable 85 individual whale sharks were identified in a single season close to the island of Nosy Be, off northwest Madagascar. “No-one thought there were that many [whale] sharks,” said Stella Diamant of the Madagascar Whale Shark Project, lead author and project leader of the study. Intriguingly, all of the whale sharks recorded were juveniles, ranging from 11 to 26 ft in length. They had also all arrived in Madagascar’s waters from further afield, although cross-referencing with a global database indicated that they had not migrated from Mozambique or other neighbouring areas. “They come back for the food,” said Diamant, whose findings have established Madagascar as “an important seasonal habitat” for these young sharks.
Whale sharks are currently afforded no formal protection in Madagascar, except in two Marine Protected Areas located to the southwest and northeast of Nosy Be. “'Over the last decade, shark populations have declined dramatically in Madagascar due to overfishing,” said Dr. Jeremy J. Kiszka, a marine biologist and co-author of the recent study. “However, the most significant threat to this species is the incidental catch in coastal gillnets and industrial purse seiners operating offshore.”
The reliable arrival of the whale sharks to Nosy Be between September and December has created a growing ecotourism industry, but to ensure this continues, protection for whale sharks must become more of a priority for Madagascar’s lawmakers.
The aforementioned protected areas around Nosy Be are also home to a number of other large marine species, including manta rays, sea turtles and humpback whales. But the migratory nature of many of these creatures – as evidenced by the tagged whale sharks’ movements – shows that many more such protected areas must be established if these marine species are to be safeguarded effectively.
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