Whale sharks are the world's biggest fish. One location where you can find whale sharks is in the Gulf of Mexico, and unfortunately, 1/3 of the Gulf's whale sharks, a species listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, live in the area affected by the oil spill that occurred starting in April 2010. Recent reports indicate the oil spill could be disastrous for the Gulf's whale shark population.
"This spill's impact came at the worst possible time and in the worst possible location for whale sharks," said Eric Hoffmayer, a biologist from the University of South Missisippi who studies whale sharks.
Whale sharks feed on plankton, crustaceans, tiny fish, and occasionally larger fish and squid, by skim feeding, and Hoffmayer said that if the sharks were feeding in the oil- polluted area and were affected by the oil, they may have died and sunk to the bottom, leaving scientists with little clues as to how many were fatally affected by the oil. Those who didn't die immediately might have their endocrine or immune systems affected over the long term.
Animals impacted by the spill, but still alive, could also travel to other areas.Tagged whale sharks have traveled from Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico, and from Belize to Tampa, Florida. Tagging studies are ongoing to determine the movements of sharks in the Gulf, and hopefully will tell us more about the longer-term impacts on the species.
- Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) Marine Life Profile
- Whale Sharks Killed, Displaced by Gulf Oil? (National Geographic)