It sounds like something fresh out of a low budget sci fi movie, but the megamouth shark is not only real, it’s amazing. These derp-faced giants are the third largest shark in the ocean and they roam the deep using their enormous mouths, lined with comical rubbery lips, to filter feed on plankton and jellyfish, just like basking sharks. There have been fewer than 300 spotted since their discovery in 1976 and they are considered extremely rare, meaning little is known about these deep-sea animals. Their rarity has unfortunately made them a valuable specimen, and a worrying trend in Taiwan has galvanized conservation groups to urge for better protection and improved fishing practices to prevent the death and trade of megamouth sharks.
“Globally there have been 230 reported catchings of megamouth sharks,” said Jonathan Tree from the Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST), in an interview with IFLScience. “One hundred and forty-six of these have been caught by Taiwanese fisheries, which together account for nearly two-thirds of global catchings.
“While fishing operators claim megamouth catchings are accidental bycatch, in 2018-19 just three fishing vessels were responsible for 72 megamouth shark catchings off the coast of eastern Taiwan. This month, four vessels caught six megamouth sharks in the space of just four days.”
Megamouths typically swim at depths of around 120-166 meters (394 - 545 feet) during the day, but they have predictable vertical migrations which bring them within fishing range between dusk and dawn at just 12 - 25 meters (39 - 82 feet) below the sea surface. It’s unclear if this migration is in search of food or favorable light conditions, but it puts the huge sharks at risk from capture be it as accidental bycatch or otherwise.
These unique creatures unfortunately sell for a high price, between $6,000 and $180,000 depending on their size. They’re sought after by private buyers for their caudal fin and conservation groups such as EAST fear this financial incentive makes catching megamouths an inviting prospect for fishermen. Data gathered from the only megamouth ever tagged indicated they are slow-moving, with an average speed of just half a meter per second, which combined with their predictable daily movements makes them an easy target.
“In 2014, Taiwan's Council of Agriculture enacted a mandatory reporting system for megamouth sharks,” said Tree. “The regulations require that fishers and fishing operators who have caught a megamouth shark report the catching to authorities within 24 hours of their arrival in the port. However, these measures have failed to protect the megamouth shark from a small group of fishing operators determined to profit from these rare creatures.
We call on the Taiwanese government to be a responsible international player and act quickly to introduce a similar ban on megamouth catching, before the megamouth shark vanishes from our oceans.”
[H/T: Taiwan News]