Some biological characteristics, such as large size, slow growth, late maturation and extended longevity, probably limit recruitment and make whale sharks susceptible to overexploitation. These characteristics also suggest that populations are slow to recover from any overfishing.
The whale shark is listed on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Animals as “indeterminate” status. This category applies to species known to be endangered, vulnerable or rare, but currently lacking enough available information to appropriately place it into one of these three categories.
The whale shark is listed by the AFS (American Fisheries Society) as conservation dependent (reduced but stabilized or recovering under a continuing conservation plan) in both the U.S. Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. However, it is considered not at risk in the Gulf of California. In the Maldives and Philippines there is legislation banning all fishing for whale sharks. This protection was introduced because of the possible serious impact that the fishery may be making on whale shark stocks.
The predictable occurrence of whale sharks in a few localities, such as in Western Australia, has led to the development of an expanding tourism industry. In this area the whale shark is a protected species and its tourism has been managed through a system of controls, including the licensing of a limited number of operators tours. In addition, there have been calls from conservation-minded divers worldwide to refrain from riding, chasing, or in any way harassing any large marine animals, including whale sharks.
Recently, some observations made on the Ningaloo Reef’s whale sharks provided the information that regular diving is a normal behavior of these sharks and not an avoidance reaction during contact with humans. However, the natural variability in whale shark abundance and distribution, the reasons for aggregations at some areas, and the carrying capacity of the industry are still unknown. Consequently, evidence of any impact is difficult to obtain and interpret.
The whale shark is listed as “Vulnerable” with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The IUCN is a global union of states, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in a partnership that assesses the conservation status of species.