Opinions on the Ethics of an Enclosure for Whale Sharks

Written by on September 18, 2013 in Other News, Sharks
A snorkeler swimming with a 6 meter long whale shark.

A snorkeler swimming with a 6 meter long whale shark. Photo credit: FGBNMS, NOAA.

Back in February we wrote about a potential whale shark sanctuary in Kenya. The Waa Whale Shark Sanctuary (still awaiting licenses) would hold two whale sharks at a time — both taken from the wild — in an enclosure located between Diani and Mombasa.

The East African Whale Shark Trust (EAWST), the non-profit organization working to open the sanctuary, says that the park would raise money for whale shark research and would establish a research center and potential breeding program, in addition to creating many jobs for locals.

Many conservationists and animal rights groups believe that these are false claims and the sanctuary is simply designed to make money. They feel that it is cruel and unnecessary to take animals from the wild and showcase them for human entertainment.

I recently received an interesting comment about this article from EAWST volunteer Steve Capone who brought up a few interesting points that often get lost in the very emotional debate about animal captivity. You can read his full response here. Below, I’ve included the parts that I found the most interesting and am curious to hear your thoughts on.

“Seeing live animals up close allows the individual to become more engaged with them, more emotionally attached to them. You have to see that level of attachment before you can motivate people to take the political action to save these creatures.”

“Here in Kenya we have vast wild areas where animals can roam freely…There are also many fenced in conservation areas…These fenced in conservation areas inhibit ancient wildlife migration routes and disrupt their instinctive need for movement BUT the fencing is considered necessary for conservation efforts.”

“The Waa Whale Shark Sanctuary project is absolutely essential to the conservation of whale sharks in Kenya. This is because the threat of the Chinese who are coming to build the new port in Lamu will figure out that they can make big money by killing whale sharks for their fins.”

What do you think? Is captivity really the only way to get people to care about threatened animals? Can we realistically compare a sanctuary with two whale sharks to one that is home to hundreds of animals on land? Is keeping whale sharks with relatively small brains in an enclosure just as bad as keeping intelligent and highly social orcas in captivity? The whale shark is, after all, a fish. If we were talking about keeping bluefin tuna in an enclosure, would people get this mad? It seems unlikely, but where do we draw the line?

Here are two other interesting points from Volker Bassen, the one who came up with the idea for the Waa Whale Shark Sanctuary:
First: The sharks will only be kept in the enclosure for six months before being released. “And if by keeping 2 juveniles specimen of these majestic fish in captivity can eventually help to save hundreds, is it worth it?”
Second: The sharks will be fitted with new, state of the art satellite tail tags before being released. The sharks can then be followed on their website.

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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  1. Steve, thank you for your continuos support. Emily, super site, excellent issues, superb content & articles! Regarding the above article, could you please add the following? “and if by keeping 2 juveniles specimen of these majestic fish in captivity can eventually help to save hundreds, is it worth it? Another important thing to mention is; over a limited time period of 6 month. (These fish will be released periodically)

  2. Emily says:

    Thank you, I will definitely include those points. One other question: before releasing them, will you tag the sharks for future study?

  3. Hi Emily,
    Yes, the released shark will be fitted with a new, state of the art satellite tail tag. The movements can then be followed trough our dedicated website. Over the years we tagged 20 whale sharks with pop-off archival satellite tags so we do have much experience in tagging whale sharks.

  4. Emily says:

    Thanks for taking the time to answer. I’ll be adding that to the post now!