Where are the whale sharks? Thoughts on the fate of this (and other) critically endangered species from Tofo, Mozambique – April 2017
Dr. Harriet Etheredge
Posted on April 18, 2017
Fewer fish in the sea
We have just returned from a diving trip to Tofo, a spectacular bay in south-eastern Mozambique. The primary purpose of our trip was to dive with whale sharks. By all accounts this quest was unlikely to end in disappointment – numerous websites assure the would-be visitor that whale sharks inhabit the coast of Tofo year-round (though there is a season > Oct / Nov – Mar / Apr). So we launched ourselves into the blue. We did not see whale sharks. We did not see manta rays. We saw hardly any large marine fauna at all (a handful of sting-rays – including the ‘smalleye’ (particularly rare and generally thought to be extinct), several moray eels, large shoals of small fish).
Let me contextualise my remarks. The first time I dived Tofo was 14 years ago. Though I did not see whale sharks, I did see huge fevers of manta rays. There was a wealth of life on the reefs. A stark contrast to the sparsity of coral and occasional shoal of fish one sees now. This observation really worried me, and I asked many people for their opinions of why there are not as many ‘fish in the sea’.
Over-fishing and the market for endangered marine fauna
The consensus is that over-fishing is a problem and I was initially surprised that this was often blamed on the local population. Environmental ethics considers, amongst other things, the management of our natural resources. From a moral perspective – regardless of how you think the abundance of life on earth came to be – I doubt anyone would dispute the fact that local communities who live in coastal areas need to eat. The sea provides an ample supply of food which is capable of sustaining a local population and the stream of tourists to a town like Tofo. What was much more worrying was the suggestion of indiscriminate sea-plunder by large-scale fishing operations, far offshore, well beyond the gaze of ‘greenie’ divers or conservationists. This, to feed the insatiable appetite for shark fins and rare seafood, demand for which tends to be driven by Asian countries.
I soon came to understand that the local population do perhaps play a part, because these fishing operations readily purchase endangered marine fauna from local fishermen, as discussed in this upsetting 2013 article. I wonder if the local population fully understands the consequences of these actions, which are distressing firstly because they exacerbate the already incomprehensibly-huge black-market in critically endangered wild life. Secondly, and ironically, this type of practice will greatly detract tourists who hope to dive, swim or snorkel with large marine fauna from visiting the area. As tourism is a significant income-producing industry for Mozambique, failure to appreciate the consequences of such actions could leave the country, especially the coastal villages that rely on tourism, much worse off.
I have been an enthusiastic scuba-diver for over a decade, and my final thought on leaving Tofo was: “Will I be able to teach my children how to dive one day? Will they be able to experience the magical world under the sea as I have?” At the moment, I have my doubts.
The views published in this blog are entirely my own (informed) opinions. They are open to debate, discussion and disagreement.
Tagged: 2017, Environmental ethics, manta ray, Mozambique, Scuba, Tofo, whale shark