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Citizen science helps track persistent threats to whale sharks

Citizen science, where the general public participates in scientific research, is quickly becoming an important component of wildlife studies. In a new paper led by MARECO’s Dr. Gonzalo Araujo in collaboration with the Borneo Marine Research Institute at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, the authors share instances where whale sharks were illegally caught and processed, and how these were detected and documented by members of the public.

‘Malaysia Whale Sharks’ is a citizen science-driven initiative designed to improve our understanding of this charismatic species in Malaysia. This initiative has helped create a network of active participants that share sighting information, rare occurrences, and threats when encountered. It is complemented by dedicated research work, as well as by ‘data mining’ of social media content relating to whale sharks in the country. Whale sharks have unique spot patterns that can be used for individual identification, very much like our own fingerprints. This way a photo of the left or right flank of the whale shark can be used to ‘track’ a whale shark over distance and time.

During our data mining exercises, we extracted a whale shark encounter from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, from 2006 that had a perfect left identification image. When we ran the ID through the global whale shark database Wildbook for Whale Sharks (now known as Sharkbook), it matched a submission from 2009. Sadly, this latter encounter was of a dead whale shark that was caught and landed in Johor, Malaysia (this page contains graphic content). Similarly, in 2018, a whale shark caught and processed in Sarawak, Malaysia, and photos were shared on social media.

Although these instances of whale sharks illegally caught and processed highlight persistent threats to this Endangered species, they also highlight the power of the public in playing a key role in the species conservation. In order to develop adequate conservation and management plans for this overexploited species, it is important to make use of the best available science and knowledge. Having members of the public actively contributing sighting information, including documenting threats such as fishing gear interactions, ship strikes or direct take, is therefore an essential conservation tool.

Access the full paper here.

Araujo, G., Kwong, K.O., Jones, I.G., Holmberg, J., Pierce, S.J., Manjaji-Matsumoto, B.M. (2022) Citizen science as a key tool in whale shark conservation. Aquatic Conserv: Mar Freshw Ecosyst. 2022;1–2.

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