Government officials, Sea Turtles 911 Founding Director Frederick Yeh, and Ocean Park Director Suzanne Gendron, prepare to release rescued sea turtle back into the ocean. (Photo courtesy of Sea Turtles 911)
A whale shark (Rhincodon typus) and two green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) have been successfully released in Hainan Island, China.

With blue skies above and turquoise waters below, approximately 50 people, including government officials, students, volunteers, local fishermen, and community members, boarded a boat taken into Lingshui Bay where the animals were set free into their ocean home.

The event was a collaborative effort between Hawaii-based Sea Turtles 911, Hainan Normal University, Ocean Park Hong Kong, local government and fishermen.

Coincidentally, the event was held on America’s Independence Day.

Sea Turtles 911 founding director, Frederick Yeh, hailed the day as a celebration of freedom for marine animals.

"Sea turtle conservation does not only involve sea turtles. When we protect charismatic species such as whale sharks, those efforts spill over and protect sea turtles as well,” he said. “These two animals share the ocean, and we must learn to share the ocean with them.”

He added that currently, sea turtles and sharks are endangered due entirely to human-related causes; therefore, “protecting them is humankind’s responsibility.”

The whale shark and one of the sea turtles were outfitted with satellite transmitter tags that will communicate information such as their location, swimming speed and depth, and surrounding water temperatures.

Despite being the largest fish in the ocean, very little is known about the life histories of Whale sharks, particularly in the South China Sea.

Suzanne Gendron, director of Ocean Park, said, “Recently, a Whale shark was sighted in Hong Kong waters. We believe it is a member of a larger whale shark family in the Pacific, and with events like today, we will be that much closer to finding the truth.”

The satellite tag will help biologists learn more about their extremely long migration paths, areas in which they feed, and possibly even where they breed, so that conservation efforts are focused in these places.

The released whale shark was a juvenile male measuring 6 meters (20 feet) in length and weighing approximately 1 ton.

It is believed that adults can reach up to 20 meters (65 feet) in length and weigh 30 tons. Whale sharks are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

They are often victims of fisheries by-catch, accidentally caught by fishing boats, or hunted and killed for the value of their large fins to be used in shark fin soup. A traditional Chinese dish, the demand for shark fin soup has increased as China’s economy grows.

In recent years ‘shark-finning’ has become controversial due to the inhumane nature of the catch; caught sharks have their fins sliced off and are thrown back overboard to eventually drown, unable to swim without their fins.

It is estimated that approximately 100 million sharks are killed each year for the industry.

The two green sea turtles were juveniles weighing 30 kg (66 lbs) and 25 kg (55 lbs) respectively.

Both had been in residence at Sea Turtles 911’s floating sea turtle hospital for approximately 10 months after being rescued from the illegal sea turtle trade. They were admitted on the same day, both suffering from extreme nutritional deficiencies and weighing a bare-bones 16 kg (35 lbs) each, making their successful dual release all the more special.

Green sea turtles are hunted and raised by poachers for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in China.

Sea Turtles 911 is a Hawaiian non-profit organization focused on ending the illegal sea turtle trade, which thrives on the demand for sea turtle meat and items made from sea turtle shell, particularly from the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).

The organization also works closely with local fishermen to encourage the conservation and release of whale sharks caught as by-catch by Chinese fishing boats.

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