Two environmental groups have teamed up to purchase most of a 5-acre (2-hectare) island off Belize’s southern coast and manage the surrounding water as a protected area for whale sharks, the world’s biggest fish species.
Washington-based Conservation International came up with most of the US$300,000 price for the project on Little Water Caye Island, while Belize’s nonprofit Friends of Nature has hired rangers and will manage the reserve.
As part of the May 24 agreement, the government of Belize has signed a commitment to declare a protected area in waters surrounding Little Water Caye, the largest known meeting spot for whale sharks.
This summer, the groups will break ground on the island for a research facility and a ranger station aimed at studying the fish’s mysterious habits and keeping fishers and tourists in check.
"This will provide an opportunity for the first time to conduct ongoing, long-term research on the largest fish in the sea," said Costas Christ, director of ecotourism for Conservation International.
Growing up to 46 feet (14 meters) long and weighing up to 15 tons, the whale shark has a wide, flat head and a rounded snout. Its long, sharklike body is covered with distinctive yellow spots. And contrary to its name, the fish is not related to whales, which are mammals.
Listed as a threatened species, whale sharks are nonaggressive filter feeders, sucking in large amounts of water and separating out the plankton, krill, small fish, fish eggs, and squid for their food.
Food is precisely what brings them to the waters off the island, located about 18 miles (30 kms) off Belize’s coast near the resort town of Placencia. Millions of snappers gather under full moons in the spring to spawn, turning the sea a milky color and drawing whale sharks, who feast on snapper eggs.
The spawning phenomenon has been wiped out by overfishing in other parts of the Caribbean, but local fishers have been brought onboard in the Belize project. While snapper fishing will be discouraged in the protected area, fishers can earn extra money by bringing boatloads of tourists to see the whale sharks.
Rangers will enforce a rule that no boat may get closer than 50 feet to the giant fish and divers can’t get closer than 15 feet. Whale sharks could abandon the area if divers harass them or even get too close.
The whale sharks will also be included on the list of animals and plants protected by the Belizean government.
There is no census on remaining numbers of the species and no firm knowledge of their breeding and migratory habits.
"This is the only known, predictable congregation site in the world for whale sharks," Christ said. "So little is know about this species that, when we learn more, they could be bumped up" to endangered status.
A private owner still owns a small part of the island but has agreed not to develop it for commercial purposes.
A country the size of Massachusetts with a population of only 260,000 people, Belize currently has 40 percent of its land and sea in reserve status. The country’s barrier reef is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.