The smallest whale shark ever found has been rescued from a hawker in the Philippines, shedding new light on the breeding habits of the biggest fish in the sea.
Scientists are celebrating the discovery of the 38-centimetre baby whale shark – the tiniest living example of a species that typically grows to nine-14 metres and weighs 12 to 15 tonnes.
It was found at the weekend with a rope tied around its tail, secured to a stick poked in the sand in a coastal town near Donsol in Sorsogon province.
Environment group WWF said a hawker was allegedly trying to sell the fish in an area that sees the world’s largest known annual gathering of whale sharks.
After checking to see the baby whale shark was unhurt, WWF, police and government officials measured and photographed it before releasing it in deeper water.
The find is very significant for scientists, who know little about where the biggest fish in the ocean goes to give birth to its live young.
Until now it was thought the Philippines was simply a stop-off point for the rare species.
But WWF-Philippines chief executive Jose Ma Lorenzo Tan says the tiny size of the whale shark caught on Friday strongly suggests it was born there.
“In spite of all the research that is being done worldwide on whale shark, to this date no one knows where they breed or give birth,” Tan says.
“For many years, scientists thought that Donsol was merely a ‘gas station’ along the global network of marine highways where whale sharks cruised.
“This new discovery is the first ever indication that this coastline may actually be a birthing site.”
Tan said the find showed how critical it was to protect marine environments in the Philippines, and other countries that make up the Coral Triangle.
“This is no surprise. After all this has happened in the Coral Triangle – the nursery of the seas – where life begins, and many things remain possible,” he said.
WWF promotes conservation programs across Coral Triangle countries, which also include Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor.
It is aiming to establish a network of marine protected areas that will help ensure whale sharks continue to migrate safely to the waters off Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia’s north-west coast.
Papua New Guinea is hosting a high-level meeting this week on a plan to protect marine ecosystems and food security in the Coral Triangle. Details will be announced at the Coral Triangle Initiative Summit at the World Ocean Conference on May 15.
The biggest whale shark ever recorded was caught on November 11, 1997, near the island of Baba, not far from Karachi, Pakistan.
While only 12.65 metres in length, it weighed more than 21.5 tonnes and had a girth of 7 metres.
But very few have been found between birth size and four metres. One found in a study by WWF/TRAFFIC measured two metres.