Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tagging whale sharks in China….. part 1

David Rowat (MCSS Chairman) was recently asked to assist in a whale shark tagging programme in China, a first for this nation and hopefully the beginning of some interesting work in this area.

Suzanne Gendron, a Director of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation in Hong Kong (OPCF), had previously been to Seychelles and seen the MCSS whale shark programme in action; when she was asked by the the Fishery and Fish Harbor Administration of the South China Sea if she could assist with tagging and releasing two sharks, David and MCSS were an obvious choice.

At first the thought of flying all the way to China to find two sharks and tag them was a bit of a tall order but Suzanne explained that these two sharks had been in a large sea-pen for some time and so locating them was actually fairly simple.

And so it was that David was soon winging his way to China to satellite tag two unsuspecting customers! On arrival the fisheries scientific officer CUI Yun-Chen advised that they had just received two PAT tags from Wildlife Computers that were all set up on the new Wildlife anchor darts and ready to go (see tagging article), David had also brought along a PAT tag and a fin mount Splash tag that were being funded by OPCF if there was the possibility to attach them.

One of the whale sharks in the large sea-pen investigates the boat that is used for feeding them, prior to the transfer to San-Ya for release. Photo CUI Yun-Chen

The sharks were two of several whale sharks that had been caught by local fishermen and put into a large sea-pen for eco-tourism activities and after several months they were to be released. Apparently, there are several more whale sharks being kept in similar sea-pens in coastal areas of China, and like-wise these are released after a while and replaced by others as they get caught by fishermen…. What wasn’t clear is whether the captures were accidental or not, but this is certainly better than hunting them for slaughter for the restaurant trade.

The release of the sharks was planned as a part of the end of fishing season ceremony: each year the fishing season is closed for six weeks to allow fish to spawn and help to ensure continuing stocks in the coming seasons. The Fishery and Fish Harbor Administration of the
South China Sea have an end of season ceremony to thank all their staff and the various civil society partners for their assistance and in the spirit of conservation, a number of marine animals that would normally have ended up on the menu in some restaurant are symbolically returned to the sea. This year the two whale sharks were to be the star attraction, with a supporting cast of several horse-shoe crabs and a green turtle.

After meeting up in Hong Kong with the Suzanne Gendron and David Lai from OPCF it was off to San-Ya on Hainan Island to the South West of Hong Kong where the whale sharks were waiting. Director ZHANG and CUI Yun-Chen were on hand to meet everyone at the airport and that evening a plan for the coming day was drawn up.

David’s concern was that the new Wildlife Computers anchor darts, while being effective anchors, could not be attached by the pole-spear and would have to be implanted using the special hand-tool (photo right) and so require a surgical incision… which would mean restraining the sharks and that would not be an easy task!

On the day of the tagging the team had suddenly expanded to over 20 people including representatives from Shandong University and veterinarians from the fisheries department and local NGOs to ensure that the sharks were fit enough to be released and that the tagging was appropriately carried out.

David Rowat (right) goes through a last minute equipment check with David Lai from OPCF (left) on the pier while waiting to board and soon had an interested crowd of the expanded team and local dive centre staff. Photo Suzanne Gendron OPCF

Now all we had to do was restrain two young whale sharks to attach the tags….. how much does a 5 metre whale shark weigh?

To be continued.....

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