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NO PLACE FOR GENTLE GIANT Coast Guard men drag a dead whale shark found at Manila Bay early Wednesday morning. It was later brought to the BFAR office where an autopsy showed plastic sheets and rusty nails inside the creature’s belly. REM ZAMORA





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Plastics, nails found inside ‘butanding’

By Tina Santos, Alcuin Papa
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:53:00 10/29/2009

Filed Under: Animals, Pollution, Climate Change

MANILA, Philippines?Plastic products and nails were found in the stomach of a dead female whale shark that fishermen found early Wednesday morning near the Manila Bay breakwater just a stone?s throw from the Manila Yacht Club.

These were the initial findings of a necropsy performed Wednesday afternoon on the whale shark (popularly known in the country as butanding), said Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau.

Lim said her office would conduct laboratory tests and analysis on the blood and tissue of the fish to see if it was poisoned. The results would be available in two weeks.

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus), estimated to be at least 2 years old, was 17 ?-feet (5.2 meters) long and weighed more than a ton.

Eyes gouged out

Greg Yan, information officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines (WWF-Philippines), said his group had named the whale shark ?Bulag? (blind) after discovering strange injuries to both its eyes.

?The eyes were virtually gouged out,? he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Yan said the whale shark was the third large sea creature to have died in Manila Bay in the past three years. In December 2008, the lifeless body of a baleen whale was found floating beside a passenger ship moored in Manila Bay. In August 2007, another baleen whale carcass was found floating at the mouth of the bay.

Joggers startled

The discovery of a dying whale shark near the Cultural Center of the Philippines startled joggers who frequented the area and caused heavy traffic on the south-bound lane of Roxas Boulevard as motorists slowed.

Melchor Cariño, a fisherman in the area, said he and three of his colleagues were about to go fishing when they saw the whale shark, which they initially mistook as a log.

?It appeared very weak, it was already floating on its side so we decided to tie a rope around it then towed it toward the shore so rescuers can revive it. But it died on our way to the shore,? Cariño said in Filipino.

He said that while he and the others were towing the whale shark, a fish which was about 2-feet long, was seen hovering around as if following them. It left eventually, Cariño said.

He said it took his group almost two hours towing the whale shark to the shore near the Manila Yacht Club.

?It was so heavy,? he said, adding he was surprised at his rare find. ?It was my first time to see a fish as huge as that.?

Spotted couple of times

But another fisherman, Atom Hara, claimed to have seen the whale shark on the same spot a couple of times before.

?I saw it in the same area last Monday. But prior to that, I saw it hovering around a docked ship, as if it was playing,? Hara said.

Once on shore, Cariño said he immediately went to report the incident to a radio station located at the nearby Cultural Center of the Philippines.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), informed of the find, towed the whale shark to their headquarters and called the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

Pollution

Edwin Alesna, chief of the fisheries, quarantine and wildlife regulations section of BFAR, said his office was looking at pollution in the bay as one of the possible causes of death of the whale shark.

?We have to conduct a necropsy to determine what really caused its death,? Alesna said. ?We have to dissect its tummy to see if it was able to swallow trash, like plastics or heavy metals, which eventually caused its death,? he added.

Manila Bay is considered one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.

City workers of Manila regularly haul off truckloads of refuse, consisting mostly of bamboo, wooden planks, food wrappers and drink containers, pieces of rubber and styrofoam from the bay.

?Unfortunately, we are the catch basin (of garbage). Manila is low lying, and trash from other cities accumulate here,? a city official said in previous interviews.

Alesna said it was also likely that the whale shark surfaced at the shallow part of Manila Bay because it was not feeling well or it was looking for food.

?The presence of whale sharks could indicate the return of a strong food base. The whale shark was probably attracted to the plankton abundant in the area. They go where their food is,? the BFAR official added.

Alesna said the whale shark was not a victim of a boat strike as no external injury was found on its body.

?It had superficial bruises, which could have been caused by the towing, but it had no external injury,? he said.

The whale shark will be buried at the bureau?s graveyard for marine animals in Dagupan, Pangasinan.

Climate change

Lim said she had been directed by Environment Secretary Lito Atienza to test the quality of water at Manila Bay.

?He wants a check at the quality of water Wednesday and Thursday to determine if it or the pollution of Manila Bay had an effect on the death of the whale shark,? Lim said.

?We?re also looking if its death was climate change-induced. We?re looking at trends because out-of-habitat sightings of marine animals could be an indication of the effect of the impending climate change,? she said.

More sightings

Whale sharks have been known to aggregate in Donsol, Sorsogon. But BFAR officials and the environment group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said more and more sightings of the giant fish are being reported in Batangas and Quezon.

She said this was the first time a whale shark was sighted in Manila Bay.

?Scenarios like beaching of whales are called out-of-habitat sightings. These are signs of climate change,? Lim said.

She said changes in sea temperature and water currents could be adversely affecting marine animals, leading them to erratic behavior like beaching.

Krill, plankton

Lim said it was likely the female whale shark followed krill and plankton, its primary food, until it wandered into Manila Bay.

?We have been noticing a high number of krill and plankton in Manila Tuesday and Wednesday,? Lim said.

Whale sharks are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as ?vulnerable? to extinction and are protected by Philippine law under Republic Act No. 8550 and Fisheries Administrative Order No. 193.

Since 1998, WWF has been spearheading whale shark conservation in the Philippines, working closely with coastal communities and the local government of Donsol in an ecotourism package to protect the whale sharks.



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