Should You Swim with Whale Sharks in the Philippines?Catch of the Week
A couple of hundred meters from the shore, more than 20 boats carrying holiday-makers are lined up in two rows. Between the rows, excited tourists with snorkels and GoPros on selfie sticks swim among whale sharks feeding on plankton thrown by the boatmen.
During the tourist season, more than 1,500 sightseers descend each day on Oslob, a town of 30,000 on the island of Cebu. Tourism based on interacting with the world’s largest fish has taken off since beginning there in 2011. The town’s annual industry is now worth more than $1 million (about R15.5 million at R15.54/$).
About 500km north of Oslob, on the neighbouring island of Luzon, lies Donsol, the coastal town which pioneered whale shark interaction tourism in 1998. Fisherman, Agusto Nunez (45), says that Donsol has changed completely since visitors come to experience whale shark interaction.
“We used to live only out of fisheries, but now we also have tourism thanks to the interaction with butanding (“whale shark” in the local Tagalog language).”
But the two projects could not be more different.
Donsol’s ecotourism initiative, led by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), champions sightseeing in the whale sharks’ natural habitat and not feeding them, unlike the Oslob project.
While both towns protect this vulnerable species from hunting through tourism, Oslob’s venture is disrupting the living patterns of whale sharks, which could have far-reaching ecological consequences if tighter rules are not applied soon.
Whale shark hunting
In the 1990s, up to 800 whale sharks were slaughtered and traded from Filipino coastal towns into the Asian market according to the WWF. An average-sized animal (they can weigh as much as 34 tons) was worth about US$250,000 (about R3.9 million at R15.54/$).
Environmentalists brought the slaughter of Donsol’s whale sharks to the attention of the media, leading the Filipino government to declare it the first-ever municipal sanctuary for these animals within the 6,000 islands of the archipelago.
Donsol lies within the Coral Triangle, which encompasses six countries and is considered the world’s “most biologically and economically valuable marine ecosystem,” according to a 2014 United States Agency for International Development report. The Philippines is a major supplier of fish in the region, with an industry now worth $1 billion.
The government banned the killing and sale of whale sharks in 1998 and introduced a new code to protect all fisheries and aquatic life.
Donsol locals were initially reluctant to accept the new regulations as their livelihood depended heavily on fishing, but they agreed to take part in the ecotourism initiative set up by the United Nations Development Programme, which had the potential to be profitable.
Protecting the shark, saving a community
Donsol’s conservation project has found success. In only 15 years, Donsol’s annual number of tourists has gone from a 1,000 to 25,000.
Over a decade, yearly municipal earnings have increased from $370 to $452,000 (about R5 750 to R7 million at R15.54/$), excluding income generated by related businesses such as hotels, restaurants or sari-sari (small Filipino grocery shops).
Donsol’s entire population has become a stakeholder in this successful venture. Fishermen provide services as guides and boat crew and no longer rely exclusively on fishing as their sole source of income. Fishermen are now prominent members of the Butanding Interaction Officers (BIO), a relentless group of fishermen protecting whale sharks through Donsol’s ecotourism industry.
Sightseers pay $6.5 (R100 at R15.54/$) for the registration fee plus $76 (about R1100 at R15.54/$) to rent a boat for up to six people to view whale sharks over three hours.
Supervised by BIOs, visitors are allowed to swim among the sharks, but must stick to Donsol’s strict rules, which include not touching the animals.
The income generated during the butanding interaction season, from December to May, when whale sharks migrate to Donsol’s bay, has reduced overfishing, balancing the integrity of the ecosystem and guides earn up to five times more that they earned from fishing.
“Maritime protection areas have expanded from 100 to 312 hectares and bio-ecological assessments show a dramatic increase of fish in terms of frequency and biomass,” says Raul Burce, the Philippines’ programmes director for the WWF, which manages the project with the local council and the department of tourism.
The estimated tourism value of one living whale shark over its lifetime is almost $2 million and, with the protection of the whale sharks’ ecosystem, Donsol’s ecotourism industry has achieved sustainability.
Conservationism versus tourism
Lured by Donsol’s success, the town of Oslob launched its own whale shark project in 2011. Bankas (Filipino small boats) attract the animals close to Oslob’s shores by feeding them with plankton for six hours a day. With easy access to interaction and affordable prices (about R120 for locals and R190 for foreigners), Oslob’s industry grew quickly. Between 2011 and 2012, Oslob welcomed 98,000 visitors, nearly four times that of Donsol. But the high number of tourists and the nature of the interaction in Oslob concerns experts and even locals.
“Feeding these animals is not good because one has to work and find one’s own food, but the whale sharks rely on what humans give them,” says Oslob tour guide, Jefferson Santos. He recognizes that boatmen now earn in a week what they used to earn in a month only five years ago, but he believes people should see whale sharks in the wild.
A 2015 report on Oslob by the local conservation organisation Large Marine Vertebrates Project Philippines (LAMAVE), found that feeding a long-living migratory species such as whale sharks may have negative consequences for the whole maritime ecosystem.
LAMAVE researchers observed sharks bumping paddle-boats due to the association with food, causing propeller scars in their mouths. The report highlights non-compliance to the established code of conduct and suggests reducing the tourism pressure on the whale sharks in Oslob.
Dr. Arnel Yaptinchay, a specialist in aquatic ecology and director of the NGO the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines (MWWP) which actively campaigns against feeding whale sharks, says that one of the biggest whale shark populations in the world is being affected. Feeding causes injuries, poor nutrition and changes in behaviour and migration. If done on a bigger scale, the feeding of whale sharks will also be harmful to the reef as eutrophication of the site occurs with overgrowth of algae.
Dr. Yaptinchay further says Oslob is a poor example and cannot be called ecotourism as it leads to miseducation regarding respecting, using and interacting with any wildlife responsibly.
(Story and photo courtesy of News24.com)