Decline in whale shark tourists worries Gwen, OslobBy Carmel Loise Matus, Jessa J. Agua
Cebu Daily News
With visitors declining in Oslob’s town’s whale shark-friendly coast, Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia yesterday formed a study team to find out why the “tuki” frequently swim close to the shore of barangay Tan-awan.
If they can find out why, the town has a better chance of continuing its financially rewarding tourism enterprise.
The monitoring will go on for three months.
For now, Garcia said the local boatmen’s daily routine of hand feeding whale sharks with krill would continue.
An order from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Manila to stop the feeding because it alters the behaviour of marine wildlife stemmed from an open letter of a Filipino whale shark researcher complaining about the practice.
Another Italian-based research group Phsyalus, which has been monitoring Oslob’s whalesharks since March, raised the alarm that Oslob’s most famous whale shark “Fermin” and others ended up with propeller cuts in their face and bodies because they would approach boats, mistakenly thinking they would be fed.
The discovery spurred an online petition urging environment authorities to stop the tourism-induced practice of hand feeding whale sharks.
Garcia had a closed-door meeting with officials from Oslob town, DENR 7, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and the Department of Tourism at the Capitol.
They agreed to form a monitoring team led by BFAR, with the DENR, Oslob town and cooperation of the Tan-awan Oslob Whaleshark Fishermen Association.
Garcia told reporters she can’t stop the feeding based on the observation of “one person”, referring to marine biologist Elson Aca.
“It’s the behavioral pattern of whalesharks to really go near the boats and bancas. For as long as they are in Oslob, they are guaranteed not to be harmed. They won’t be hit by paddles because they are protected there,” said the governor.
“That’s why it’s good that awareness of whalesharks has developed. Protocols on whaleshark protection are very well established,” she told reporters.
From a peak of 300 tourists daily, Oslob Mayor Ronaldo Guaren lamented that the number of visitors to his town sharply dropped since critical reports spread calling for a stop to whale shark feeding.
“From an average of 200 to 300 tourists a day, the number of visitors went down. In fact as of yesterday, there were only about 20 individuals who went to barangay Tan-awan,” Guaren said.
This has upset a lucrative livelihood which small fishermen discovered when they started whale shark watching tours, regulated by the Oslob municipal government in January this year.
Mayor Guaren said their tourism efforts have been hurt by adverse news and lobby efforts of environmentalists regarding the the marine animals, which are called “butanding” in Luzon and “tuki” in Cebu.
He said Oslob town has “alternative plans” to counter the downtrend in visitors but hopes it doesn’t come to that.
Mayor Guarin said he didn’t believe marine and environment experts who said Oslob’s daily feeding affects the natural migratory behavior of whale sharks.
“The butanding have been in our municipal waters for the past 30 years and when our fishermen go fishing, the whale sharks come near,” Guaren said.
He said the town’s boatmen even protect the fish species.
“The increasing number of whale sharks sighted means they are comfortable in our municipal waters,” said the mayor.
He said the DENR and BFAR monitoring study would “validate” the claim of environmentalists that whale shark behavior is being altered by Oslob’s enterprise.
Governor Garcia stresed the benefits to Oslob town and the country.
“This is creating a very positive economic impact for the Philippines but the important thing here is these people make protection of the whale sharks their very livelihood then they will protect whalesharks with their lives,” she told reporters
While the hand feeding appears to have conditioned whale sharks to approach Oslob fishing boats, some marine scientists suggest that other factors may explain while the world’s largest fish species frequent the town more than other parts of Cebu and the Visayas, and why they linger.
One theory is that an “upwelling” in the ocean or rise of large amounts of plankton and other microscopic nutrients which whalesharks feed on occurs in the area.
Some critics of Oslob’s practices, however, said they approve of the way whale shark tours are being done in Donsol, Sorsogon, promoted for over a decade as the “whale shark capital” of the country.
In Donsol, motor bancas cruise the open sea till a “spotter” sights a whale shark, and the vessel approaches it but keeps a clear distance while passengers look, but don’t touch.
Absolutely no feeding is allowed.
A trained “butanding interaction officer” guides divers or swimmers underwater, strictly keeping a five-meter distance from the fish.
In Oslob, however, a banca ride can take a visitor less than a kilometer from the shore to see a whale shark up close.
Crowding of paddle boats around a whale shark, with three or more animals appearing at a time, is not unusual and instances of excited tourists jumping in to swim close, sometimes accidentally kicking a whale shark are not uncommon.
“That is one of the things that we will look into with our monitoring,” said marine biologist Johan Tejada about Donsol’s mature whale shark watching program.
“Probably we can suggest that. In the mean time, we will pursue our plan to just monitor and verify before making a recommendation.”
“This move is to find a solution to address the issues stated in the news and the letter of an environmentalist sent to BFAR,” he said referring to Aca’s letter complaint that reached the DENR Secretary.
Tejada said they didn’t want to magnify the story “because it’s only one person”.
“Our concern is to find a solution to address the letter,”
“The governor wants an empirical study before a recommendation is made,” said Ariel Rica, Protected Area Supervisor of the DENR 7. He said the agency’s coastal and marine management division is part of the monitoring group.
Limbet Suzada, president of the Tan-awan Oslob Whaleshark Fishermen Association, said residents realized how important these marine animals were and have learned to protect them.
“Kasagaran sa mga mananagat sauna wala pa kakita sa potential aning mga whalesharks. Wa man kay makuha ana kay mangilog man sa pagkaon pero karon ang mga mananagat nakakat-on na pagproteher,” he said.
(Most of the fishermen before didn’t see the potential of these whale sharks. The fishermen couldn’t get any fish catch because the whale sharks would compete for food.)