Dubai hotel quietly releases whale shark back into Gulf

DUBAI -- A rare whale shark has been released after 19 months in an aquarium at Atlantis, the luxury resort on The Palm, the hotel said yesterday.

But just as the 4.6-metre shark’s capture raised concerns among environmentalists, so did its release – which was carried out quietly.

The world’s largest living fish, whale sharks are listed as vulnerable to extinction in the Red List of Threatened Species.

They are free-roaming ocean creatures, traveling vast distances each year, and can dive to depths of up to a 1,000 metres.

At the time of its capture in August 2008, Atlantis, The Palm said the shark was showing signs of distress and that was why they decided to remove it from the sea near Jebel Ali and place it in the Ambassador Lagoon, its 11-million-litre fish tank.

Conservationists said an aquarium could not possibly cater to its needs, and said the shark was being used to draw crowds.

Yesterday, the resort said its fish husbandry team had released the shark back into the Arabian Gulf, but did not invite any outside observers to view the event.

“We will continue to track her progress through a tagging programme co-developed with The Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida,” Steve Kaiser, the resort’s vice president, marine and science engineering, said in a statement.

“This will give us the opportunity to continue to learn from her and share that research within the whale shark community.”

Conservationists welcomed the whale shark’s release and the promise to share the data, but questioned the way it was freed.

“I am a bit disappointed that they are keeping this close to their chests.

“They really need to involve regional whale shark researchers into this,” said Jonathan Ali Khan, a Dubai-based filmmaker who has made a documentary about sharks in Arabia.

“The question really is under what circumstances she is being released. Is she in good health and how we can verify this?”

In an e-mail to the Associated Press, Mr Kaiser said the shark was in good health when it was released off the east side of The Palm. Outsiders were not invited for the safety of the shark, he said.

“The seasonal elements affecting water temperature, salinity and migratory patterns were perfect for enhancing her survival in the open ocean,” he said.

Dr Robert Hueter, the director of the Mote Center for Shark Research, confirmed the Florida-based aquarium helped the Atlantis staff create a tagging programme, but said no one from the institute was on hand to witness the shark’s release.

The tag will record the shark’s survival, movement and depth for the next three months, he said.

Called a Pop-Up Satellite Archival tag, the device should detach from the shark’s body and float to the ocean’s surface in three months.

It will then transmit the information via satellite to the research centre.

However, a percentage of such tags fail, which means the fate of the shark may remain a mystery.

Dr Hueter said the shark was released now because the hotel wanted to send it back into the wild before summer began to heat the water.

“I talked to Atlantis [Thursday] morning and they described the whole procedure,” he said.

He said the shark had grown by 60 centimetres while in captivity and had gained weight.

“They described her as very active as they released her,” he said.

“As soon as she was lowered into the open water, she just took off.”

The Emirates Wildlife Fund – World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF) said in a statement: “If indeed the whale shark finally has been released into the wild ... EWS-WWF is pleased.”

It added it was “happy to hear that the Atlantis has tagged the whale shark, and that the data will be shared with the scientific community... .

“We hope the Atlantis will share the information with local organizations working on marine environment in the region.

“There is very little data on whale sharks and this kind of information is valuable for future conservation efforts.”

Source: http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100318/NATIONAL/100315902

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