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Last December 15, Miss Universe candidates were highly criticized after the beauty pageant contestants decided to swim with whale sharks in Oslob City, Cebu despite the protest of numerous environmentalist groups.
The whale shark, or butanding in Tagalog, is the largest marine species in the ocean. They can reach up to 420 meters or more and can weigh up to 20.6 tons (think: school bus). Despite their intimidating size, they are harmless and non-predatory unlike the infamous great whites. Whale sharks are filter feeders, meaning that their diet consists mostly of planktons rather than meat even though they are carnivores. They start reproducing at the age of 25 and may live up to 100 years old. They are also considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a highly-endangered species.
In July 2016, the IUCN Red List announced that the whale shark was no longer listed as vulnerable (more than 25% decline of population) but rather endangered (more than 50% decline of population), thus sliding closer towards extinction.
The whale shark attraction in Oslob became a great source of livelihood for the town’s citizens. Before being known as a whale shark haven, Oslob has been struggling to make ends meet with their primary revenue coming from fishing and farming. The presence of the majestic beasts has brought a huge amount of income to the small town due to the influx of tourism. In fact, according to the regional Economic Development Council, Oslob managed to generate P35 million in income just nine months after starting their operation in January 2013.
While the recent development might sound like music to the ears of the tourism office, the whole operation poses a threat to the whale shark’s existence. IUCN reported that the growing human attention that the creatures are receiving is detrimental to their species. It increases the risk of extinction for the whale shark population, which has been on a steady decline for the past few years. In fact, the number of whale sharks have more than halved with 63% of population decline over the last 75 years as they continue to be fished and killed by ship propellers.
Whale shark ecotourism exists in many countries frequented by the species, including Mexico and Australia. If done correctly, a whale shark sanctuary could be a very profitable source of income for the community. However, wrong practices might lead to grave, damaging effects.
In order to protect whale sharks, the Australian government for ecotourism at Ningaloo Reef established a code of conduct as follows: 1) only one tourist boat should interact with a shark at one time, 2) no more than six snorkelers should be in the water with a shark at any time, 3) snorkelers must maintain a distance of three meters from the shark, and 4) snorkelers may not touch the shark or block its movement. When followed correctly, a safe and enjoyable whale shark experience for tourists would be ensured with minimal impact on the sharks.
In the Philippines, the whale shark sanctuary in Donsol has managed to successfully handle its ecotourism while ensuring wildlife preservation in the area. Donsol was able to craft and develop a sustainable business model with the aid of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The sanctuary enforces strict rules in interacting with the sharks: they do not allow close interaction, touching, and feeding of the animals. They also make sure to only contain them for a short period of time, allowing them to freely roam and feed on their own volition in order to not disrupt their diet. With less human dependency, the butanding are able to go about their normal routines and patterns.
What’s wrong with Oslob?
The problem with Oslob is that it’s currently not following any concrete rules or business models that would ensure sustainability of the program and the survival of the animals. For example, fishermen continue to feed the sharks to lure them closer to the shore. As a result, the marine animals start being friendly and dependent on humans and gradually learn to associate boats with food. Due to this, whale sharks approach nearby boats, which can lead to collisions, severe injuries, or death after being hit by propellers.
Human dependency also creates change in the migratory process of the species. Whale sharks migrate over to warm, tropical countries during winter but return to the Atlantic afterwards to give birth. With the stable feeding source provided by the locals, the animals tend to stay longer or permanently instead of roaming the waters. This causes problems in their breeding habits and therefore could be contributing to the continuous and rapid decrease in their population.
There is also the matter of poachers and illegal fishers. Whale sharks have high meat value amounting to more than $30,000. Their meat and fins are highly demanded in high class restaurants, while other parts such as their skin and oil are sold off to companies to make bags and medicine.
- Hundreds of whale sharks continue to be fished every year in countries including southern China and Oman – often for shark fin soup, where the fin is used and the remainder of the fish goes uneaten.
- An estimated 38 million sharks were killed in 2009 to meet the demand in Asia for shark fin, the study by the University of British Columbia in Canada found.
Environmentalists and biologists have long been boycotting and protesting the whale shark attraction in Oslob, to no avail. The locals and even the local government officials continually argue that the practice is needed for the livelihood of the community.
What we can do
The Philippines is a beautiful country full of natural wonders and Filipinos tend to capitalize on this fact. The problem with this setup is that we tend to focus more on raking in the tourists rather than taking care of what we have and promoting that in order to naturally attract their presence. Due to the huge revenues that we earn from Mother Nature, the best course of action is to give even more attention and effort towards its preservation. There is nothing wrong with Oslob’s desire to use the presence of the gentle giants to better their community; they just need to find a way to make it beneficial, or at least not disruptive, to the animals’ wellbeing.
Meanwhile, everyone else could help protect the whale shark population by simply boycotting products and services that use them, especially those who exploit the whale shark for food like the Sharks Fin soup and the Filipino variant, the Sharks Fin Siomai. Sharing and spreading information about the plight of these creatures is also needed so as to raise awareness among common folk. If we could put pressure on the people running the whale shark industry, chances are change will soon follow.
Written by Julinda Gallego