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More research needed as whale shark sightings increase

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    Whale sharks are considered an endangered species.

KAILUA-KONA >> A marine researcher in Hawaii who has observed an increase in whale shark encounters around the islands is developing a research program to document the giant fish rarely found in U.S. waters.

Maria Harvey worked for seven years in various capacities off the shores of West Hawaii before she saw her first whale shark. Since then, she’s seen about 30.

In 2016, Harvey came up with a research idea for Hawaii Uncharted Research Collective, a nonprofit organization, to chart whale sharks around the state and hopefully create better protections for the species, West Hawaii Today reported Friday.

“Whale sharks are considered an endangered species,” said Harvey, chief research coordinator, of her motivation to develop the program. “So if they are in our waters, we need to understand how to protect them and how to preserve them.”

Stacia Goecke, the organization’s chief scientist and co-founder, said whale sharks have been overfished around the world, leading to a decline in the overall population. She said the only restriction applying to whale sharks in the U.S. is that no one is allowed to catch and sell them for use in aquariums.

“Besides that, there’s absolutely no protection for them in U.S. waters,” Goecke said. “And that’s probably because they’re not known to be in U.S. waters with any regularity.”

Using current and historical data, Hawaii Uncharted Research Collective has identified 120 unique individual whale sharks in Hawaii waters. The first documented sighting was in 1991, with a spike coming in 2014. Some of that had to do with the advent of affordable underwater digital cameras, Goecke said, but in the years since numbers have continued to rise.

Goecke said ocean-goers have reported more sightings in 2017 and 2018 — more than 50 to date — than during any other years.

Funding for the research project is still in its early stages. So far the organization has obtained only one grant, from the California-based PADI Foundation, to construct a laser photogrammetry rig. The device uses two lasers with a camera to measure the length of a whale shark, which will allow researchers to delineate between juvenile and adult individuals.

Harvey said the organization hopes to get funding for satellite tags and other monitoring systems and is partnering with local “ambassadors” to bolster its research efforts.

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