The Poster Shark for Shark Finning
Hello, my name is Domino, and I am a Whale Shark. I think I should be the poster animal for the ending of shark finning. It might be hard to relate to other sharks that are (supposedly) so menacing, ruthless, and with a mouthful of razor sharp teeth, but look at me! I was named after the gentle giants of the sea, the whales. Whale sharks are every bit as magnificent as whales, yet most humans have not heard of us.
Are you a whale, or a shark?
Humans inevitably ask, are you a whale? Or are you a shark? I am unequivocally a shark. In fact, I am the world’s largest fish as well as the world’s largest shark. My mouth is full of teeth, but my teeth are only 1/12th of an inch (3 mm) long and I don’t even use them to eat! I only eat tiny, microscopic plankton that I filter from the water around me.
I can grow to be more than 40 feet (12 meters) long and weigh more than 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg). I also have a unique pattern of spots interspersed with occasional stripes that is not found on any other animal! In fact no other whale shark shares my unique polka dot and stripe pattern. It’s my fingerprint, to put it into human terms.
My “Squished” Head
I have a unique body shape, as my head is dorsoventrally compressed. This means that my head is “squished” flat, almost like a pancake, with my 4 foot wide mouth in front. Most sharks have the distinctive sharp snout with a mouth underneath their head that you picture when you hear the name “shark.”
How I am like other sharks
I share some other characteristics with the “other” sharks, like I do not have any bones in my body. My body is made up of cartilage, which is found in human ears and noses. Like other sharks, my thick skin is made up of denticles, or very tiny teeth, which makes our skin rough like sandpaper. These denticles make us sharks very streamlined, and able to swim very swiftly and quietly through the water. My 4 inch (10.2 cm) skin is also the thickest of any animal on earth!
One very important characteristic I share with all other sharks is the worldwide market for our fins. These are turned into a dish humans eat called shark fin soup. I was flattered–for all of a second–to find out that my fins are highly sought after because they are the largest of any shark. Well, the basking shark has larger fins, but less of it is edible. Whale shark fins are made into the most expensive bowls of shark fin soup. Our meat supposedly tastes and feels like tofu, but most of the time the fishing boats don’t have enough room for our large bodies.
Not only is shark finning barbaric (often only the fins are sliced off a shark and it is tossed back still alive into the ocean to die a slow death), but it is wasteful as the whole shark is not utilized in any way. It’s sad to swim by a once powerful shark that is now unable to swim without its fins.
The Food Chain
I get angry because removing such large numbers of top level predators from the food chain affects the availability of my food (the microscopic plants and animals at the bottom of the food chain). All the seafood humans harvest from the ocean is affected. Killing up to 100 million sharks a year is not sustainable! Although the food chain is very complex, there is an elegant order to it. It is like the food pyramid humans follow for eating. My food (the plankton) is at the base of the pyramid, and sharks are at the very top. The ocean could not sustain having as many sharks as sardines, so there are very few of us sharks to begin with.
I’m a shark but…
I lament being categorized with great white sharks and their menacing reputation. They have their very important place at the top of the food chain, but it is guilt by association. If humans only knew that shark finning included killing gentle and magnificent whale sharks such as myself, I think they could begin to understand our plight. Little by little I think humans are beginning to protect us by banning shark finning in some waters, creating shark sanctuaries, and banning the import, sale and distribution of shark fins. Even though all I share with the whales is my name, size, and the fact that some of us are plankton feeders, I think it is fortuitous. I hope someday humans will stop hunting us for our large fins, and start to revere us like whales. We are just as amazing, and just as gentle.
To see how you can help visit COARE or APAOHA
Also see Snorkeling with Whale Sharks off of Cancun, Mexico
And Domino the Whale Shark Gets Freed From a Net!