Nairobi — Kenya authorities have been urged to halt a German underwater cameraman's plan to capture whale sharks so tourists can dive with them.
The plan has infuriated conservationists, who said claims the scheme would protect the creatures "do not add up" according to an article published by the UK's Daily Telegraph.
The conservationists and wildlife charities including the Born Free Foundation in Britain, called Volker Bassen's plans "flawed and deeply misguided" and appealed to authorities in Kenya to halt the plan immediately.
"The conservation arguments for this project do not add up," said David Obura, Kenyan coordinator for a regional coastal research organisation, Cordio East Africa who spoke to the newspaper is quoted as saying.
Bassen, a diving instructor who runs a whale shark trust, wants to hang nets 2,000ft long in shallow waters off Kenya's Indian Ocean beaches as enclosures for two of the animals where visitors would pay £65 (Sh8,400) each to snorkel or dive with the whale sharks, "and the money would be used to fund protection programmes for them."
The scheme's opponents deny Bassen's claims that whale sharks were increasingly endangered in East African waters, where their liver oil is used to seal fishing boats against rot.
Obura further added: "There is no evidence to suggest whale sharks are being actively hunted, or that numbers are declining as a result."
"You cannot tell me that such a sensitive species which is known to migrate more than 1,800 miles in a year, and dive down to 3,200ft, can be happily confined to a shallow netted pond in the sea, with no possible escape from tourist stress, no ability to feed naturally, nor seek out the natural conditions that suit it at different times of the year, nor socialise," Obura affirmed in the interview.
The animals are the world's largest fish, growing up to 30ft and weighing more than 20 tonnes. "Although they are sharks, they are entirely docile and feed only on plankton that they harvest with their wide mouths," the article says.
Bassen defended the plans saying that the enclosure, south of Mombasa and close to popular tourist beaches at Diani, would double as a marine rescue and rehabilitation centre.
"This is not some hoodlum miss -thought project, my opponents are misinformed," he told the newspaper. "We have been working on this for more than five years, it's a million-dollar investment and we have the support of some of Kenya's leading conservationists."
Research by his East African Whale Shark Trust found 58 whale sharks off Kenya in a two-week period in 2006, but the same study this year identified just five of the creatures in a month of searching.
Some proceeds from the profits of money earned from tourists would pay for local fishermen to process cashew nut shells into oil to be used to caulk their boats. "These beautiful animals are disappearing from our seas because of the demand for their liver oil. We must find an alternative," Bassen claimed.
He is waiting for final approvals from Kenya's National Environmental Management Authority, which is expected to decide whether the project should go ahead this week.