17 October 2008

Sammy the whale shark: some updates

A leading Dubai conservation group has put pressure on releasing the whale shark. According to recent media reports the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) yesterday issued a statement “to pressure Atlantis into tagging and releasing this shark back into its natural habitat as soon as possible”.
EMEG was set up in 1996 under the patronage of Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the wife of Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed, minister for presidential affairs.

Until yesterday, EMEG, which works on some conservation projects with the developer Nakheel, had remained silent on the matter, although individual members had expressed their concerns privately. Yesterday’s statement, however, was unequivocal.

According to The National, the controversy over the whale shark has now reached the highest executive levels of Kerzner International and Nakheel, the joint-venture partners behind the Atlantis resort. A high-ranking official at the Ministry of Environment and Water is also believed to be looking into the matter.

Already cashing in on the whale shark
The National reports
There is little doubt that the creature has become a major attraction at the aquarium, which has been selling toy whale sharks in its shop for Dh99 (US$27) each.

Labels on the toys state that “Atlantis proudly supports the Kerzner Marine Foundation”, which on its website describes itself as “a private, non-profit foundation that fosters the preservation and enhancement of global marine ecosystems through scientific research, education, and community outreach”.

However, the foundation is not an entirely independent organisation; it was set up in 2004 by Kerzner International, the hotel group behind the Atlantis, and Mr Leibman is one of five directors on its board.

The foundation, which is based in Florida, failed to respond to repeated requests for a statement. Management at the Atlantis in Dubai and at the hotel chain’s global communications office in New York were also unavailable for comment.

Was Sammy purposely hunted for the aquarium?
Gulf News also reported that
Sammy was not rescued by the Atlantis hotel, Gulf News has learnt, after speaking to ex-Atlantis employees who say that plans to have a whale shark in the hotel's Ambassador aquarium were clear from the beginning.

According to several previous employees who spoke to Gulf News on condition of anonymity, there was never been any plan to release Sammy and the hunt to find a resident whale shark was relentless, with fishing boats heading out every night to find one.

An ex-employee from the Marine and Water Park department at Atlantis, who left the company this summer, said the hotel's plan to acquire a whale shark was known by all since the beginning.

"It was going to be part of the attraction. There was no mention of a release. We were always told it was coming," they said.

"When I joined the company the dolphins were already there but they were going fishing everyday to collect sharks and fish. They didn't catch many sharks though. A few bull sharks died from shock of being in a different environment," they said.

"They were looking everywhere for a whale shark. It has just become so annoying to read about this knowing they lied. It wasn't rescued."

Gulf news also reported the views of the fisherman who caught Sammy.
The fisherman who caught Sammy the Whale Shark said he would do it again if he came across another fish in the same distress. All that mattered to him was the well-being of the giant fish.

Whether Sammy stays in the Atlantis tank is not his immediate concern but the artificial environment could offer the world's biggest fish a good home, said Hamed Al Rahoomy, an Emirati fishermen and previously chairman of the Fishermen's Association.

Annually, one or two whale sharks are caught accidentally or found by fishermen dead from boat collisions, said Rahoomy, adding that having one in a tank is a good means of educating the public and fishermen on the gentle fish.

"I am working for Atlantis to collect all the fish for the aquarium," he said.

The facebook group on the issue now has more than 7,000 members.

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