Maldives Government moves to Protect its Whale Sharks

In another step towards becoming environment-friendly, the cabinet unveiled plans yesterday to designate three whale shark habitats in the Maldives as protected areas.

Cabinet members allocated Baa atoll Hanifaru, Baa atoll An’gafaru and Alif Dhaal atoll Maamigili as protected areas to commemorate World Environment Day and World Ocean Day on the 5 and 8 June respectively.

“We welcome the whale shark sanctuaries,” said Ali Rilwan, executive director of environment NGO Bluepeace today. “We don’t need paper parks, we need monitoring and more research in these areas.”

In March, the ministry of fisheries and agricultures extended the moratorium on reef shark fishing to cover the whole of the Maldives as part of a move towards a total ban on both reef and oceanic shark hunting.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Ibrahim Naeem, director of the environment ministry, said the main objective of the project was to protect the areas’ megafauna, namely whale sharks.

He explained the areas will be divided into various zones, in which different activities will be permitted. While diving and snorkelling would still be allowed, a set of guidelines would be provided to instruct on how to deal with encounters with whale sharks.

Further, boats will be subject to speed limits in certain areas, he said.

Naeem said the reaction of local residents was “very positive”. “They actively wanted this to happen and this won’t impact any of their activities so they have nothing to lose from this,” he said. “That’s the findings of the consultation.”

He added the decision would have a “global significance” and the areas were among the few in the world where whale sharks could be spotted.

The polka-dotted whale shark is the largest fish on the planet, but very little is known about their existence, according to the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme’s website.

While it is known they swim potentially vast distances across the ocean, eating only plankton, tiny fish and squid, how long they live or where they reproduce remains a mystery.

Guy Stevens, a marine biologist at Four Seasons Resort, said it was crucial to establish a set of guidelines to counter the impact that the growth of tourism would have on whale sharks in future years.

At present, it is estimated that whale shark excursions generate US$10 million annually.

According to Stevens, researchers have spotted 115 whale sharks in the Maldives, although the real number was probably higher.

“Some of these areas are important feeding grounds,” said Stevens. “And out of all of them, there are only two females, so the animals are only spending part of their lives here.”

He added the designated areas would also protect other animal species such as manta rays in Hanifaru and reef sharks in An’gafaru.

As part of its efforts to mark World Environment Day and World Ocean Day over the coming week, the government will also be introducing seven awards in recognition of efforts to go carbon neutral and launch two campaigns: “Walk to School” and “Back to Bicycle”.

NGO Bluepeace will be also hold an event to celebrate World Environment Day this Friday: a beach clean-up at Hulhumale’.

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