Lessons From Diving With Whale Sharks

For the past couple of days, I've been side by side with hundreds of the biggest fish on earth -- whale sharks.

I've just returned from an incredible adventure in Cancun, Mexico, where every summer hundreds of these majestic giants gather under the full moon to feed on billions of fish eggs.

I was in Belize a year ago where we encountered two whale sharks, but it was absolutely amazing to be swimming in the middle of an estimated 300 whale sharks within about a one-square mile area. It's a deeply spiritual experience to be so close to these massive, domino-patterned leviathans, often flanked by giant manta rays.

Observing these spectacular animals in the wild is a wake-up call for us all that sharks around the world, including these giants, need our help. Sharks are being hunted ferociously for their fins, primarily for shark fin soup. Millions are inhumanely killed every year, the result being that many species are now threatened with extinction.

As apex predators, sharks play a vital role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems everywhere. Sharks are slow-growing, late-maturing, long-lived and give birth to very few offspring during their life cycles, making them extremely vulnerable to overexploitation.

Without sharks, the ocean can and will get out of balance quickly, as was the case off the coast of North Carolina. According to a study published in Science Magazine by the late Dr. Ransom Myers, the disappearance of sharks there led to an explosion in the population of rays, which have subsequently wiped out virtually all the bay scallop fisheries -- and the fishermen whose livelihoods had depended on the health and sustainability of this resource for over a century.

The good news is that the United States has made great headway in shark conservation in recent months. At the end of 2010, Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act, which prevents shark finning in U.S. waters.

But while shark finning is illegal in the U.S., current federal laws banning shark finning do not adequately address the issue of the shark fin trade. As a result, fins are being imported to the U.S. from countries with limited to zero shark protections in place. Legislation banning the sale and possession of shark fins passed recently in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Guam and is pending in California.

I'm really hoping that California follows the lead of its neighbors. Ending the trade of shark fins in the state would continue our country's reputation as a leader in shark conservation and send a signal to the world that shark fins belong on a shark's body, not in soup.

Keith Addis is President of the board of directors at Oceana, the ocean conservation organization.