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Whale Sharks in Oslob, Cebu PH: Grooming a disaster?
It’s been 24 hours since I left Cebu to swim, observe and learn about whale sharks in their area. The experience was very different compared to the last time I swam with a whale shark 6 months ago in the nearby province of Bohol when I was helping this NGO establish whale shark research in the area for the next season. Bohol was once thriving with whale sharks decades ago but the population starts to dwindle in the early 1990s because of excessive hunting. When the national law was passed in 1998 that prohibit catching, killing and selling them, sightings of whale sharks have started to rise not only in Bohol but in other areas of the Philippines as well. The success of the whale shark ecotourism in Donsol, Sorsogon prompted other areas to dwell into this kind of income-generating activity for their municipality. The latest one that jumped to this opportunity is this town south of Cebu.
Word spreads quickly that this town is offering a swim with whale sharks to tourists. What makes this different with other places in the Philippines offering this tourism activity is that they feed the whale sharks with “uyap” (small shrimps). While vertical feeding, tourist flock around these whale sharks to see them, feed them, photographed with them or just be amazed with their huge-ness. Only with its initial implementation, a lot of comments and disgusts have been posted in the newspaper and social networking sites on the conduct of their tourism activity. I received several emails and tagged comments about this and surely needed more information on how this came about. And as if the universe conspires for things that need to happen, it cuts my trip in Cagayan de Oro and led me to this town in Cebu to investigate the whale sharks in cooperation with a television network.
The first day was exhilarating as it was easy for me to do my photo-identification research in clear blue water with my subjects doing vertical stance for quite some time gulping for the every instance of food being thrown directly to their mouth. As I moved from one shark to another, I felt the excitement die down. Where is the thrill of swimming along side with them? Is this really how they should behave? These are just some of the questions that popped into my head at that moment and I know that the succeeding days would be allotted in finding answers to most of my questions.
In order for this tourism activity to be sustainable and beneficial in the long run, it needs to consider three factors namely the social, economic and environmental aspects. Would this activity be able to sustain itself without posting any risks to the environment so that the future generation would be able to enjoy the same resource? It will only be possible if we try to find a way to learn more about it so that we could manage it properly. Here are some of the issues and observations on the three aspects that I noticed while I was in the area.
Feeding the whale sharks is one of the most common complaints of tourists (mostly environmentalists) on the practice in this town in Cebu. While it is understandable that humans have the compassion to try to feed the ones that are hungry, it is sometimes that this good-natured intentions would do more bad than good in the situation. In the case of whale sharks in Cebu, the practice had led to a change in behavior of these creatures which may be detrimental to their population. The whale sharks tend to associate the presence of these boats with food. Our little experiment had shown that they quickly appear when boats started to show in the area. I’ve seen some instance that they would approach the boat and nudge them slightly as if begging for food. While begging is not an acceptable behavior it is also on these behavior that whale sharks gets scratches from hitting the boat and outriggers (I’ve seen a lot of scratches on the head part with evidence of paint). That begging behavior may pose a threat if they do it somewhere else. That behavior may be thought as other fishermen in other parts of the Philippines as an aggressive behavior and might be the reason for them to be hit by these unfamiliar fishermen or on the worst case, fishermen may have an easier chance to kill them for food (some remote coastal areas in the Philippines still doesn’t know about whale sharks and the law regarding them). The feeding practice also teaches the whale sharks to be lazy and may not have the ability to find for their own food and just rely to the ones given by humans. What if the humans run out of food to give these whale sharks? If they get accustomed to this, they might die from starvation. And I wonder and got concerned when we can’t get out because of the typhoon Sendong and I’ve been seeing the tails of the whale shark above the shallow waters. What if the typhoon lasted for days and the fishermen can not get out to feed them? The threat of the whale shark being always in the shallow waters frightens me as the strong ocean current and waves might push them more inshore and get stranded. Their continued presence in the shallow water may hinder them to fulfill some of their ecosystem and/or life functions in deeper waters. They can dive deeper than 1.5km, they wouldn’t have that capability if it doesn’t have a purpose to their being. If they continue staying on the shallow waters, we are hindering their capability to do maybe important things (i.e. what if they mate at certain depths) … and it makes no difference in putting them in a large aquarium … yet still not enough for these giant creatures. Another observation is that the feeding practices might teach them to be “greedy”. I’ve seen some whale sharks stayed on for hours vertically just gulping every food that is thrown to their mouth. Who knows how much food can a whale shark take in a day? I don’t. But I know there is a limit to everything. If we don’t know the limit, wouldn’t it be safe that they get much less and let them find the remaining needs by themselves rather than getting full and overboard of just one kind of food? Is there a difference between a live “uyap” with a dead “uyap”?What if they have dietary needs not being supplied by the fishermen through the “uyap”? All I know is, it is bad for the health if you are just eating McDonalds and Jollibee everyday … probably the same with the whale sharks. The large volume of dead small shrimps being scattered attracts other fish species as well other than whale sharks. One local diver told me that they had sightings of other fish species normally found in pelagic areas that finds it ways to the area. The implication suggests the shifting of their habitat that may pose a danger to tourists if their presence continues. What if smaller fish that are prey to other dangerous sharks finds its way to the area? Don’t you think the sharks would follow soon after? So far the big mouth mackerel are showing up and who knows what bigger animals comes next. I do hope it is not the dangerous sharks … but the thing is, it may happen. The increasing concentration of “uyap” also increases the presence of small jellyfish that feed on them. I got stung several times during my swim and luckily they are not the poisonous ones and the sting lasts only for a couple of minutes. Yet, I am afraid that the dangerous ones might find its ways there also. As you can see, the feeding does not only affect the whale shark itself but the whole ecosystem as well. The drastic changes may have irreversible effects that we will regret later on.
Studies show that human-whale shark interaction poses a threat to the whale shark exhibiting mostly avoidance and immediate dive behavior. So far, it is not yet evident in Cebu. But caution should be taken into account as Donsol whale sharks tend to get disturbed easily nowadays while in Southern Leyte, sometimes whale sharks doesn’t show the whole year and be seen in the nearby island of Limasawa. The weakness of the existing rules and the lack of system and protocol have led to the non-compliance to the regulations. Enforcement has been a major problem since stakeholders’ responsibilities has not been laid out in the conduct of the tourism. If such practices persist, it would be long that this town in Cebu may experience the other faults of other areas offering the same services. It is sad to learn though that the municipality is focusing more on the topic of establishing fees rather than the smooth operation of the tourism which includes the regulation. These brings us to the next two aspects social and economic aspects.
Social and Economic aspect
I sometimes find it to separate one from the other as both entails humans yet in different magnitude. It is imperative that people in the community will be given a source of livelihood in order to survive. And this source of income will benefit the municipality in a way as part of its economy. While it is not yet established whether this income-generating activity (whale shark interaction) is seasonal or not, I guess we should look into this as an alternative livelihood for now. People should still continue with their fishing. It is obvious that dwelling to whale shark interaction tourism will benefit both these two aspects but for how long can the municipal government sustain this benefit? Are the people ready to face the influx of tourist in the area? Do they have the necessary skills to ensure the smooth operation of the tourism? Will the LGU and/or the fishermen consider the welfare of the whale sharks in their implementation or do they see them as a resource that needs to be exploited? Sometimes lack of awareness and knowledge hinders them to make the right decision. A lot of people in the town does not know about whale sharks and their behavior. They don’t even know how whale shark interaction was even implemented in other areas. Sometimes they only rely on secondary information and easy accessible information that are most of the time unreliable. Some divers and fishermen were lectured about whale sharks and the reason for the regulations (i.e. why it is prohibited to touch them etc.), while the same offer was given to the municipality, I didn’t see the interest for them to learn more about it. It is sad to know that the regulations/implementation set up for the tourism does not involve public participation and consultation especially the fishermen. In a community where one sector does not have a voice, any activity that concerns them would become a failure if they are not represented properly.
This is such a difficult task to attain knowing the ever changing condition of each aspect. However, it is not possible more so if the governance is strong in the area. Without the baseline of the existing resource in the area, it is necessary to employ the precautionary principle in making decision for the moment. We do not assume that it is OK for the whale sharks to eat “uyap” everyday or assume it is OK to touch them regularly like a dog or assuming that it is OK to let them eat bubbles from scuba divers deceiving them that those are food but in reality just air or assume that it is OK for them to stay in the shallow waters for a long time. The more assumptions that we will have, the more likely that it would be a failure … and it will just be a matter of time that we will feel the effects of our actions. If we take into consideration the natural way of things, whale sharks that supposedly evolved in the era of dinosaurs was able to withstand several climate changes without human intervention and live for a hundred or years or more. One such act of human intervention (i.e. feeding) whether done with good intention or not might lead to the unfavorable effects on whale shark population. Sometimes we just need common sense for our decision and not wait for science to find answers. If we continue to mess around with our nature, there will surely be another disaster waiting to happen. And don’t tell me that I didn’t warn you. (via Elson Aca, a researcher from WWF Philippines who has since focused on Whale Sharks and is the research coordinator of the Whale Shark Project in Donsol, Sorsogon)