2017-03-10 11:30:57  + video 

A man claiming to have a “big catch” for sale is now being investigated for illegal shark fishing.

The suspect, Yao Peng, posted a 30-second video of divers catching what looks like a whale shark in a chat group on messaging app WeChat. The video and screenshots of the group chat have circulated online since Wednesday. 

“Caught the big guy yesterday. How much is its fin worth?” Yao wrote in the chat group. “As a diver, you should protect endangered animals, bro,” one person replied. “Then who will take care of me?” Yao shot back.

Whale sharks are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the animal was also included in the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which China is a party.

An online video of what appears to be a whale shark being captured has led to an investigation of the illegal hunting of protected species.

The Zhanjiang Ocean and Fisheries Bureau of southern China’s Guangdong province announced Thursday that it had investigated the alleged illegal fishing incident. Yao had told them that the video was shot in the waters near Sanya, in Hainan province, an island off the coast of Guangdong. The authorities there said on Friday that they were looking into the case.

An employee of the Zhanjiang Ocean and Fisheries Bureau, who declined to give her name, told Sixth Tone that the bureau is working with the Hainan ocean and fisheries department. She declined to comment further, saying that the incident was still under investigation.

Yao told Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, on Friday that he was not present during the incident and that he had sent the video “as a joke.” He said that a friend had posted the video to his Moments, a Facebook-like feed on WeChat, and that the divers were releasing the shark into the water in a Buddhist ritual to return animals to the wild, not catching it.

Dai Xiaojie, a marine fishery science and technology professor at Shanghai Ocean University, told Sixth Tone that because the whale shark is the largest fish species in existence, some fishermen catch the rare animal to show off. The animal’s fin is regarded as a delicacy.

In May 2016, a whale shark was captured in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Marine police later found out that the whale shark had been killed and turned into fertilizer for sale. In August 2015, a video circulating online showed fishermen killing a whale shark in Guangdong province.

Zhu Qian, a marine animal professor at the marine college of Shandong University, told Sixth Tone that, even though whale sharks are protected animals, inadequate law enforcement means they are still vulnerable to poaching. 

With fishing growing increasingly prevalent, some whale sharks are caught by mistake, Zhu said. Regulations state that fishermen should release the animals or report catches to the authorities. But, Zhu said, “if divers deliberately capture a whale shark, it goes against wildlife protection law.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A whale shark swims in a tank at an aquarium in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Feb. 6, 2007. Chen Qiuming/VCG)