Given the lack of sightings, some people still consider the fish a cryptid? Is that a fair assessment?
It's at a stage right now scientifically that each and every specimen that is caught is worthy of scientific attention. The problem is we don't always get to the critter quickly enough. Because these are taken in fisheries and in developing countries, sometimes by the time the word comes out it's already on a plate somewhere. This is particularly the case in the Philippines, where there's been a fair number of them taken, as well as in Taiwan and Japan. Those three areas account for most of the specimens that have been seen. In all three cases, they were taken in fisheries. The reports of them sometimes are obscure. We're getting better reporting because of the presence in some of these areas of conservation NGO representatives who happen to be around in the area usually studying some other critter: whale sharks and other charismatic megafauna, such as porpoises and whales. Some of the observations have come from people who are there to look after some of these other things and by chance come across the megamouth when it's being brought into port.
By and large, those animals are immediately butchered and put into circulation like any other piece of protein in that area. So, unfortunately, the most we get for some of these things are their length and sex, if the person there is cognizant of [the specimen's] value. Once in awhile they'll get dissected or a biologist will be there as it's being butchered to add on some other observations. Little by little we get a bit piece here, but it's been rare that specimens are at the avail of scientists to do full-scale work-ups.
Megamouths only pop up on our radar from time to time. Is there any way to determine if they're endangered or if we need a concerted conservation effort?
No. We don't have an understanding of its population dynamics, what the natural population size would be, and whether the fishing pressure (that has resulted in the capture of these sharks in the fisheries) are a threat to the population. It's very difficult to say.
But, it is a large species, and whenever you have a large species—whether it's shark or fish or mammal or whatever—they tend to get into trouble first because of overharvesting by humans. Thankfully, at this point, there is no targeted fishing for the megamouth, so it's probably in pretty safe hands. But, still, there's a lot of fishery effort in the western Pacific Ocean, between Japan and Indonesia, and, not surprisingly, this is where most of the captures have occurred. As fishery managers and conservationists, we need to keep an open eye because that is an area where overfishing could occur. But, we certainly don't have enough scientific information to know one way or another.