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New refuge for whale sharks established where Caribbean meets Gulf

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Whale sharks get new protections on the Caribbean coast. Photo: Getty

More 630,400-hectares of refuge area has been established to protect whale sharks between Isla Mujeres and Holbox.

The agreement to expand the refuge was published Tuesday morning in the Official Gazette of the Federation.

The decree, signed by the secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Rafael Pacchiano Alamán, notes that the marine area is a transition area between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, where marine upwellings converge, favoring a plankton bloom.

That’s what feeds the giant sea creatures. Because they’re filter-feeders, whale sharks swim with their 3-foot-high and 4-foot-wide mouths open to consume a mostly plankton diet.

That’s also what gives this region the world’s highest concentration of whale sharks, which grow to as much as 40 feet long and 30,000 pounds.

The gray, polka-dotted whale sharks are a tourist attraction, but “protection schemes are required to avoid or reduce the risk of interactions that may negatively affect the species,” according to the decree.

Federal environmental officials, in conjunction with the private sector, will take a fresh look at how to protect whale sharks. Not just from fishing nets or pollution, but from well-meaning tourists who want to swim with them.

In other whale shark sites, such as Madagascar and the Maldives, tour guides instruct clients to give them to give the sharks plenty of space to maneuver and prevent divers from touching them or using flash cameras that can startle them. Scars from boat propellor injuries have also been found on whale sharks’ backs.

A global study finds whale sharks in decline for a variety of reasons.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature moved the animal from “vulnerable” status to “endangered” in 2016 after concluding that its population had fallen by about 50 percent in the past 75 years.

“We should really just leave them alone,” says one former scuba-diving instructor in the Maldives. “They’re so rare.”

Source: La Jornada Maya, Globe and Mail

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