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Atlanta, Ga. (August 30, 2016) – Georgia Aquarium and Conservation International (CI) announced today, on International Whale Shark Day, a new collaborative partnership on conservation projects of interest, starting with ground-breaking research on endangered whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in Indonesia. This research, the first of its kind, will take place in 2017 to better understand the health of whale sharks in the wild.
The research will marry Georgia Aquarium's expertise, as a leading authority onwhale shark animal care and veterinary techniques, with CI's ongoing community engagement and field work in West Papua, where they have worked since 2001. The pioneering health assessment on this population of whale sharks would not be possible without this partnership and the cooperation from the Indonesian government.
West Papua provides a rare opportunity to study whale sharks "up close and personal". There, fishers use large traditional fishing platforms, or bagans, to capture silverside baitfish. While feeding on fish that are attracted to the bright lights of the bagans, the whale sharks can find themselves in the large nets, in need of assistance. While fishermen readily free the sharks their brief ensnarement offers unique access to these animals, before they are safely released unharmed. This makes West Papua the only area of the world where researchers are able to mount satellite tracking tags directly to their fins and perform health exams and blood draws. These health exams, which have never before been conducted on this species in the wild, will be performed to understand baseline health and ensure animal welfare during tagging research. Mark Erdmann, Vice President of Asia-Pacific Marine Programs at CI and project lead said, "Our initial satellite tagging results suggest these whale sharks are frequently moving large distances and often into international waters. To optimally target our management and conservation actions, its very important that we conduct further tagging studies to better understand their movements and behaviors – but we also want to ensure this tagging is not negatively affecting the sharks."
Erdmann noted that with the increasing popularity of whale shark ecotourism in West Papua's Cendrawasih and Triton Bays, the need to better understand them has become a high priority. "Animal health and life history data collected via this project will support the refinement of existing guidelines to ensure that ecotourism does not adversely impact their health or natural behaviors. For local communities to derive long-term sustainable benefits from whale shark tourism here, we must prioritize the well-being of the whale sharks."
In addition to the Georgia Aquarium's significant achievements in aquarium settings –such as the completion of the first successful blood draw of a whale shark as well as generating first shark DNA genome (in partnership with Emory University) – researchers at Georgia Aquarium also have 10 years of experience studying whale sharks in their natural habitat in the Yucatan Peninsula, St. Helena Island, and in the Galapagos.
"This partnership with CI is a pivotal development for Georgia Aquarium and for whale shark research. We have so much left to discover and through this unique and incredible opportunity in Cendrawasih Bay and partnership with experts in Indonesia and at CI, we are able to do something that would not be possible otherwise," said Dr. Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation at Georgia Aquarium, and one of the world's foremost experts on whale sharks. "We also hope to continue to inspire and introduce people to whale sharks and how to protect these marine environments so that future generations will be able to know what gentle giants they are and what challenges they face in an ever changing world."
Both organizations share the mission of inspiring the public about the ocean in order to help protect our blue planet and all its inhabitants.
News of the project comes just one month after the species went from Vulnerable to Endangered on the IUCN Red List – a global standard that provides a conservation status for all species. Their reclassification followed an IUCN assessment which found that the population may have halved around the globe in recent years and still face major threats.
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