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GIANTS AT RISK

Oslob’s friendly whale sharks can be harmed by unregulated tourism

08:16 AM January 05, 2012

Friendly whale sharks swim up to bancas in Oslob town while fishermen hand-feed them baby shrimps.

Since August, the phenomenon has been drawing a steadily growing number of tourists, both local and foreign, to Oslob, 117 kilometers south of Cebu City.

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“We earn more acting as tourist guides than catching fish,” said 34-year-old fisherman Jeffrey Cuerda.

He and other fishers guide visitors in paddle boats to locate the gentle creatures locally known as “tuki” or “butanding” that frequent the coastal community of barangay Tan-awan.

Enthusiastic but untrained, local fishermen aren’t aware, however, of the effects of unregulated tourism on these marine animals, who feed on plankton and pose no threat to humans.

Feeding the whale sharks like pets can curb their hunting instincts and make them vulnerable to predators, said marine biologist Mario Marababol of Ocean Care, a Cebu-based organization.

Some tourists also get carried away and touch or stroke the whale sharks, which stresses out the animals.

Concern over reports about Oslob’s budding eco-tourism venture getting out of hand yesterday prompted a joint team of the Department of Tourism, Oceancare and the Philippine Society for Scuba Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving (PCSSD) to visit the Oslob mayor yesterday and talk to fishermen.

“We are now talking to the fisherfolk groups offering the services to tourists,” said DOT Regional Director Rowena Montecillo.

“We’ll be helping them carry out their operations in a more environment-friendly manner that will not harm the whale sharks.”

She said reports about Oslob’s newest attraction are frequently cited in Twitter and Facebook.

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Oslob Mayor Ronald Guaren said the municipal council has still to finalize an ordinance regulating whale shark-watching activities.

A draft ordinance requires the registration of the fishermen who will be allowed to guide tourists and handle the sea animals.

It also prohibits motorboats from going near the species, he said.

The town plans to set up a ticketing office and a briefing office to educate the visitors about the species and provide safety instructions.

Fisherfolk have no formal training about how to handle the whale sharks and just rely on advice from other divers.

Two groups are offering their services in Oslob town and charge P200 per person to take them out to sea in a paddle boat, said the DOT official.

At least 14 whale sharks have been sighted by fishermen.

“They told me they’ve been seeing the creatures for a long time but only started offering their services to visitors six months ago after some group of tourists asked them and hired them to bring them to the sites,” said Montecillo.

She said the fishermen assured they are willing to cooperate with DOT and follow guidelines to be issued after the agency reviews their operation.

“They are feeding them krill or small shrimps that they catch in the evening but not to the point of overfeeding them or they are already dependent. Hopefully we can come up with a better way of sustaining this new tourist attraction,” she said.

Oslob, a fourth-class municipality with a population of over 22,000 as of the 2007 census, is being promoted as a heritage destination but lacks amenities for long-staying visitors.

The town has old Spanish-era ruins or a “cuartel” and watchtower or “baluarte.”

There’s a hut where tourists can register and wait.

“We are hoping to have a facility that can offer overnight stays because as of now, only those who own cars or take public transportation can easily come here,” said Montecillo.

“With the increasing popularity of this new attraction, we expect investments to come in. This is how tourism can help provide for livelihood especially among the locals.”

She said a reef assessment of the area will be made to determine the health condition of the whale sharks, verify their population and take note of other marine species there.

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