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Meet Big Fish Network: The Online Citizen Science Platform Designed to Help Protect Whale Sharks in the Maldives

Source: The TerraMar Project - June 2, 2017 in TMP

Meet Big Fish Network: The Online Citizen Science Platform Designed to Help Protect Whale Sharks in the Maldives
Photo: Gregor Kervina

Whale sharks are some of our ocean’s most iconic creatures. Not only are they literally the biggest fish in the sea, but they are also some of the most docile, behaving more like whales than sharks.

Unfortunately, all around the world whale sharks are recognized as endangered of becoming extinct. 

In the Maldives, these legendary animals are year-round residents. People visit the Maldives for the once in a lifetime chance to see whale sharks in the wild, as it’s one of the few places in the world where they can be seen consistently all year.

The whale sharks here are protected and thrive within a large Marine Protected Area created by the Maldives. These giant animals can be highly mobile, and travel great distances around the Maldives and Indian Ocean. Human interactions with whale sharks, though incredible experiences, can also be harmful to the animals if care isn’t taken.

The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) is an organization aimed at better understanding local whale shark populations, and promoting community focused conservation in the Maldives. And they may have found a solution to both the problems of tracking the whale sharks here, and of protecting these gentle animals from harmful interactions with people.

Whale Shark

Photo: MWSRP

Introducing the Big Fish Network

Their solution: a mobile network designed to allow whale shark viewing tourists the opportunity to participate in the conservation and tracking of individual whale sharks.

Each whale shark has a unique pattern of white spots and lines across its body, allowing identification of individual animals by analyzing their patterns from a photograph. The MWSRP created a database of photographs of individual sharks allowing all members of the Big Fish Network, including dive guides and resort marine biologists to identify and track individuals based on pictures being taken out at sea by tourists.

Not only does this enhance the viewing experience by giving the participants an entire profile of the animal they’ve just seen, but it also educates viewers about proper etiquette when approaching the animals so that they aren’t disturbed.

And if you capture a picture of a new whale shark, you get to name it!

Huge Potential

The MWSRP had been collecting data for 10 years on whale shark whereabouts in the Maldives. Prior to this Network, external sources of data on whale sharks contributed to 20% of the MWSRP’s data collection. Now, they make up over 60% of the data, proving the incredible potential for citizen science in this arena.

With 71 member tour companies and over 5000 encounters logged from all over the Maldives, the spatial movements and residency patterns of whale sharks in the Maldives are starting to emerge. With them, unfortunately, the scale of some of the more damaging trends has been revealed. 67% of whale sharks encountered bear scars or fresh injuries.

One of the big changes that the Big Fish Network brings in terms of conservation is a changing mindset of local stakeholders. Instead of guides viewing these animals as anonymous sharks, they began to come to know them and form a relationship with them. Guides now can track individual sharks survival and health on each tour. It’s the kind of change in mindset that gives people an attachment to these animals, and an investment in their well-being.

The next step for MWSRP is going to be upgrading their current app ‘Whale Shark Network Maldives’ to make it possible for contributors to submit standardized encounter data directly to the Big Fish Network from their mobile device.

The hope is that increased regional submissions of whale shark encounters will be forwarded to the global Wild Book for Whale Sharks database, allowing for more data overall on international scale research on these enigmatic sharks.

If you are inspired to help The MWSRP you can reach out to them directly at: www.maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org

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