Whale shark satellite tag emits signals from mainland Ecuador

A satellite tag of an 11-meter female whale shark tagged in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) on 29 August 2021 has sent signals from Manta, an Ecuadorian coastal city. The shark was one of eight individuals tagged by the Galapagos Whale Shark Project during their recent field trip, which Galapagos Conservation Trust proudly supports.

Image of the satellite tag on the shark’s fin, along with a camera (in orange) programmed to detach after 24 hours © GWSP

During the first two weeks, tag #220362 sent signals from within the GMR, however on 10 September, the shark moved north, along the proposed protected area called “Galapagos-Cocos Swimway”. Upon reaching Bajo Medina, halfway between Cocos Island, Costa Rica and Galapagos, the tag began to send very regular signals in the direction of the Ecuadorian coast (Figure 1). Three days later, the tag sent several signals from the ground, in the area of Jaramijó, Manta, Ecuador (Figure 2). No further transmissions have been registered since this date.

Figure 1: Track of the satellite tag placed on an 11m female whale shark on 29 August, 2021. © GWSP

The whale shark is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List and is listed in APPENDIX II of CITES – this means its capture and commercialisation are prohibited, including in Ecuador. These satellite tags are attached to the shark’s dorsal fin with the aim of tracking the individuals’ movements. Detached tags do not float making it impossible for the tag to have washed ashore on ocean currents. Whilst the exact details are unknown, the GWSP team believe there was an interaction between the tagged whale shark and a boat. We can’t be sure whether the shark was illegally caught and taken to the mainland or if just the tag was aboard the ship but we do know that the tag was carried into Manta city.

Although the loss of the satellite tag is a serious setback as we also lose data on this sharks’ movements, we are more concerned about the condition of the whale shark and whether she was released alive and unharmed. Scientists from the GWSP contacted the Ministry of the Environment and the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park. The Ministry has begun an investigation into the incident, and we will provide further updates as we get them.

Figure 2. Last emitted signals from the tag, in the area of ​​Jaramijó, Manta. © GWSP

Whale sharks are known to gather with schools of tuna and this association makes them vulnerable to accidental entanglement with fishing gear such as seine nets. Setting seine nets around whale sharks is a prohibited practice, and according to Ecuadorian regulations, purse-seine vessels must release whale sharks that accidentally become entangled in their nets and report to the corresponding authorities. However, not all vessels are compliant – the Fu Yuang Yu Leng 999, caught in the Galapagos Marine Reserve in 2017, had a whale shark on board. Whale shark meat is consumed in China and the fins have a high market value. In addition, in the last two years, there have been cases of shark fin trafficking from Ecuador.

Just like the story of Hope, who went missing in an area of high industrial fishing in 2020, it highlights the increased risk to whale sharks whenever they leave a Marine Protected Area (MPA) like the Galapagos Marine Reserve. It also shows the importance of expanding our MPAs and writing new laws to protect these endangered species. Both Ecuador and Costa Rica have declared their support for protecting 30% of the oceans by 2030.

Galapagos Conservation Trust has been supporting the proposed Cocos-Galapagos Swimway since 2018 by helping our science partners gather important evidence needed to drive forward the creation of this 240,000 km2 route. Jen Jones, GCT’s Head of Programmes, commented, “The Cocos-Galapagos Swimway is a vital underwater migration highway that connects two Marine Protected Areas – the Galapagos Marine Reserve and the Cocos Island National Park. We believe that it is crucial to protect this route from threats such as illegal fishing in order to provide a safe migration route for endangered Galapagos marine species.”

Ways to get involved

Please donate to our Endangered Sharks of Galapagos programme, which aims to protect whale sharks and other species within and outside of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.