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BP Oil Spill: Start Worrying About Whale Sharks

July 9, 2010

We can see the oil-coated pelicans, the tar-balled beaches, and the dead marine mammals that wash up. But its a lot harder to know what is going on beneath the surface. And Pete Thomas sounds a warning over what might be happening to one of the oceans’ gentlest and most beguiling beasts: the whale shark.

Here is what Pete says:

Now it’s feared that another of nature’s iconic marine creatures — the whale shark, which is the world’s largest fish — will soon be included on a checklist of spill victims long enough to fill afield guide.

Sylvia Earle, an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, agreed with the assessment that many of the more than 100 whale sharks she and other scientists encountered recently during an expedition 70 miles off Louisiana might be “on death row” because much of their historic feeding habitat is closer to shore, within the spill zone.

Whale sharks, long-distance travelers that can measure 40 feet, were once harvested globally. They’re classified as “vulnerable,” one step up from “endangered” on a red list published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Little is known about migration patterns of whale sharks that utilize the Gulf of Mexico. But some are believed to help support recreational diving industries off Belize and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

What is known is that these gentle giants are filter-feeders who spend much of their time skimming for plankton and small fishes at or near the surface. Unfortunately, this is where spilled oil tends to gather, so the future looks bleak for whale sharks unable to steer clear of now-tarnished areas, such as the Mississippi River Delta, in which they’ve feed for perhaps millions of years.

Dr. Eric Hoffmayer, a scientist with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, says at least five whale sharks have been spotted within 20 miles of the spill area. The number might be much greater were it not for boating and fishing restrictions that have limited the number of people who typically report such sightings.

I’m always amazed at how little we really know about some of the planet’s most impressive creatures, and critical ecosystems. Which only makes me wonder at the unintended damage we busy, busy humans do to them as we pursue our busy little lives.

When we will start pricing those externalities, those consequences, into oil, our economies, and the avalanche of consumer goods no one seems to be able contemplate doing without? When will we all step back and live lives that see the whole planet instead of just the things that affect our comfort and well-being? Probably never?

Here’s a video to make you think about that:

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 10, 2010 10:23 am

    The whole BP oil spill/disaster overwhelms me not only because of the irresponsibility of it all and the antiquated response and lack of mitigation but because of the long term and expansive reach of the devastation–which we probably won’t know for a very long time.

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