Text Message Saves Trapped Whale Shark

A whale shark pokes around under a fishing platform off the Indonesian coast. Photograph by Steve Jones, Stocktrek Images/Corbis.

The world’s largest fish species was the surprise catch of the day for some Indonesian fishers last month.

Men in Indonesia’s Karimunjawa National Park were fishing for anchovies and small bait fish on October 8, but they caught more than they bargained for when they discovered a juvenile whale shark tangled in their net, reports the World Conservation Society (WCS) in a statement released this week. (See pictures of a whale shark “swarm.”)

Fortunately for the young whale shark—which was more than 13 feet (4 meters) long—there was a system in place to alert authorities. A Short Message Service (SMS) set up by the WCS and the national park allows people to report fishing violations and marine animal strandings to park authorities instantaneously.

The fishers, not wanting to get in trouble for accidentally catching the shark—and unsure about how to release it properly—used the service to text news of their catch to the authorities. Staff members from Karimunjawa National Park and the WCS quickly responded and helped release the young giant back into the ocean.

The system has led to an increase in compliance with fishery closures throughout the park, as well as the prosecution of illegal trawl fishing by park authorities, WCS said in a statement.

The increase in fish may be bringing whale sharks back into the area, Stuart Campbell of WCS’s marine program noted in a statement. Whale sharks have not been common in this region over the past decade, but the presence of the young whale shark in the fishers’ net may be a sign of the ecological recovery of Karimunjawa waters. (See “Secrets of Whale Shark Migration Revealed.”)

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, reaching lengths of 40 feet (12 meters) or more, but they eat some of the smallest animals in the sea. The giants are filter feeders, using their enormous mouths to scoop up plankton and small fish. They are known for their docile nature, which also puts them at risk of exploitation by humans. Whale sharks are currently listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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Mary Bates is a freelance science writer living in Boston. She has a PhD in psychology from Brown University where she studied bat echolocation. You can visit her website at www.marybateswriter.com and follow her on Twitter at @mebwriter.