Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Maldives Whale Shark Research - In Depth

The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP), as its name suggests, study whale sharks in the Republic of Maldives, however, that aspect of their work is merely the tip of the ice berg.

The programme was created in 2006 when four young, British university graduates set off to the 1192 island archipelago on a pilot study in search of the whale shark, after a tip off from the dive industry (already well established in the Maldives) that there were a substantial number of whale sharks throughout the country and that not one person was studying them or their behaviour. After a huge amount of research, reality struck – there was nothing known about this magnificent species anywhere in the world – anything these guys could learn would help to further protection efforts for an already ‘vulnerable species’.At that time, the guys did not know exactly what they were about to stumble across. But it would soon become apparent that the rich ecosystem of the Maldives played host to a year-round aggregation of the largest fish in the Ocean, a fact very few places in the world can claim – the majority of whale shark aggregation sites around the world, such as Ningaloo Reef, Australia, are only seasonal ‘hot spots’.

Why the sharks choose to inhabit Maldivian waters throughout the year is still not known, although the MWSRP does have its plausible hypothesis. What is known is that the Maldives is a globally significant whale shark aggregation site, possibly the best place in the world to see and study these animals.

In 2007, the guys again returned to the picture-perfect chain of islands to continue logging whale shark encounters. This time they secured sponsorship from Conrad Rangali Island - a resort with a great passion for protecting the environment. Conrad would and, to this day, continue to prove their commitment to the cause by providing logistical support to make the in-filed research possible.

The team also initiated a collaborative genetic analysis study with Dr Jennifer Schmidt in an attempt to determine how related the whale sharks in the Maldives are to others in the Indian Ocean. The team encountered over sixty whale sharks in the two-month expedition and managed to collect sixteen skin samples from different individuals.

They would also begin to realise the very real threats that the sharks and the ecosystem faced, especially in South Ari Atoll.

With that in mind the guys vowed to return the following year.2008 became a real turning point for the MWSRP. The data collected over the previous two years enabled the MWSRP to bring the issues to the government’s attention and together with the tour and dive industries they developed ‘Whale Shark Encounter Guidelines’ in an attempt to make the explosion of whale shark tourism sustainable. The Maldivian government also pledged their support for the programme and invited the MWSRP to develop a Marine Protected Area proposal for South Ari’s whale shark ‘hotspot’.

The guys had also been busy working with the community and it was beginning to have tangible results - they were realising the ecological importance of the whale shark. Until quite recently, Maldivians used to hunt the whale shark for their liver oil. The older generation can vividly remember when a whale shark was caught, “It was a real community event. The whole island would come to the beach to help drag the shark over the reef and onto the beach where it would be cut open”.

The MWSRP guys realised that they needed to re-establish a connection between Maldivians and the whale shark to be able to achieve their goals. They also began to understand the issues the local people faced – a lack of employment and educational opportunities, no real way of providing power to their islands sustainably, no waste management systems and no direct benefits from the tourism exploiting their natural resources. One particular conversation, with a fifteen year old student, was the programme’s educational focus. When asked which career path he would take his reply was, “I want to be a doctor but I cannot because there are very few higher education opportunities in Maldives. I will end up working in a resort”.

A second collaboration was also instigated in 2008, this time with Dr Brent Stewart (Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, CA) to begin the first whale shark tagging project in the Maldives, a project that would be instrumental in the development of South Ari Atoll’s Marine Protected Area (MPA). Dr Stewart would also become a trusted friend and integral part of the MWSRP team and advisory committee.

The tag tracks showed that the sharks were highly mobile but the tagged animals always returned to the South Ari Atoll, highlighting the Maldives as a preferential habitat for the whale shark. This data, combined with the MWSRP’s three years of photo identification work, collectively heightened the MWSRP’s excitement that the sharks utilising Maldivian waters may be a resident population.

Even with all of the programme’s success, the year proved to be a one of transition. It was clear that to make a real difference the MWSRP would need to commit one hundred percent, but with no resources and a lack of funding it would be a real gamble.

The draw of doing “what you love doing for a great cause” was too much for two MWSRP members - Richard Rees and Adam Harman. So they decided to give up their careers, sell their possessions and pool their resources enabling the programme to exist for another year, when hopefully some long term funding would already be secured.

Richard and Adam returned to the archipelago for December 2008. The goal for the trip: recover the remaining archival tags, attempt to secure some long term funding and to develop the MPA. They also piloted a volunteer scheme which enables the MWSRP to utilise a wide range of expertise while providing each volunteer with research experience or that once in a lifetime opportunity.

The partnership proved to be a great success. Over one hundred whale shark encounters were recorded and the groundwork for the MPA was laid.2009 has been the MWSRP’s biggest year with the successful development of South Ari Atoll’s Marine Protected Area (MPA). The MPA dream: to be the first collaboratively managed, regulated, revenue generating MPA in the Maldives, ensuring the local community benefits from their natural resources whilst making tourism sustainable. Resorts are already committing to sponsoring the initiative following consultations with the MWSRP.

The year also brought the MWSRP recognition from the scientific world, the completion of a follow-up whale shark tag and release project and a vast amount of media attention – ultimately helping to raise awareness of the plight of the shark.

The guys have been present in the Maldives for six months and recorded nearly three hundred whale shark encounters this year alone. The team has grown to four, with two voluntary part time staff (Ben Fothergill and Rachel Bott) and a host of dedicated specialist volunteers and companies providing pro bono support (including Hogan and Hartson, an International Law Firm).2010 promises to be very busy - The whole team hopes to be able to build on the MWSRP’s achievements in the coming year. 2010 goals: The development of a one hundred percent self sufficient eco-facility, to enable a year-round presence for visiting researchers, scientists, students, teachers and volunteers is being planned in partnership with Sheppard Robson (leaders in sustainable design) and the Maldives’ Ministry of Tourism, two foreign student exchange schemes are in motion (one in the UK, the other in Qatar), the MPA development will continue with baseline coral reef and species specific studies and a MPA management specific NGO is being initiated. An American based ‘Friends Of’ organisation is also in the process of registration and the whale shark research will continue to provide the scientific basis behind the programme’s broader conservation goals.

The only missing aspect – funding.

To become involved with the MWSRP or for more information please visit www.mwsrp.org

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