Study notes risks of shark tours-A A +A
Sunday, September 30, 2012
THERE are some obvious changes at the whale shark interaction area off Barangay Tan-awan, Oslob.
The briefing of visitors has become mandatory prior to boarding the boats that take visitors near the sharks; it now costs an extra P200 to jump into the water with a snorkel, even if you just hold on to your assigned boat’s outrigger; and a member of the local Bantay Dagat can be seen swimming around to check if someone touches the sharks.
All these seem to support the need to balance tourism and wildlife, but a September 2012 report by Physalus’ Large Marine Vertebrates (Lamave) Project says otherwise.
The report, based on Lamave’s study of whale shark watching activities in Tan-awan, Oslob from March 31 to July 31 this year, revealed that feeding the whale sharks to lure them to the surface so people can observe them has caused some problems for the wild creatures and on the fishermen whose livelihood now depends on the tourism activity.
The group, whose volunteers are in the interaction area every day, reported that fishermen now buy uyabang from as far as Consolacion, Moalboal, Carcar, all in Cebu, and even Bacolod in Negros Occidental.
This was confirmed by Victor Eliseo, one of the members of the Tan-awan Oslob Whale Shark Wardens and Fishermen’s Association (Towwfa).
Eliseo said the income of Towwfa members from the whale shark watching activity has been diminished by the cost of buying uyabang.
The fishermen used to feed the whale sharks krill or uyap. When supply of krill became tight, Towwfa members resorted to using other shrimp species like uyabang, which is bigger.
To cut cost, Towwfa feeders stop feeding the sharks when there are no tourists. They store their uyabang stock in ice boxes.
But the fishermen realized that the whale sharks refuse to eat uyabang that has been stored for at least five days, Lamave said in its report.
Lamave also observed that the whale sharks, used to getting positive reinforcement from feeder boats, have lost their natural wariness and now actively approach boats and humans in the water. This change in behavior, Lamave said, has resulted in detrimental consequences to some whale sharks.
The report cited Fermin or whale shark P-383, which was seen on July 20 with deep cuts near its mouth and across its left eye.
Lamave believes that Fermin approached a motorboat to ask for food and got hit by the sea craft’s propeller.
Fermin’s wounds healed but Lamave said the whale shark’s left eye showed signs of permanent damage.
Wild animals exhibit natural wariness to possible threats, including humans, and whale sharks, which were extensively hunted in the Bohol Sea in the 1980s (Pamilacan Island in Bohol got its name from the practice of whale shark hunting, locally known as pamilak), have good reasons to fear boats and humans.
But supplemental feeding and positive reinforcement by humans in the water and on boats may have caused the whale sharks that frequent the Tan-awan interaction area to lose their natural wariness of humans.
Lamave researchers observed whale sharks approaching humans in the water, following and nudging boats to beg for food at the interaction area in Tan-awan.
Since motorboats are not allowed within the area, Lamave said Fermin’s case indicates that the behavior of whale sharks in Tan-awan is exhibited by the creatures when they go elsewhere, making them more vulnerable to threats.
Fermin has been seen off Tan-awan about 97 times since March 31, one of the most frequent visitors in the interaction area.
The US-based Wildlife Society noted in a technical review in 2006 that although baiting or artificial feeding of wildlife may be a well-intentioned activity, the ultimate results of such activities “have often proven detrimental to the long-term health of wildlife populations, the integrity of wildlife habitat, agricultural resources, and property and human health and safety.”
“Baiting of wildlife may result (either intentionally or unintentionally) in human and wildlife conflicts, abnormally high wildlife density, increased opportunity for transfer of disease, and other negative impacts to target and non-target species,” the group said.
Physalus president Dr. Alessandro Ponzo said that while the group understands the importance of the whale shark watching activity on the economy in Oslob, it cannot support feeding of the wild creatures.
The Lamave September 2012 report prepared by Samantha Craven, coordinator of the Oslob Whale Shark Project, also noted that some reef fishes feed on leftover uyabang.
“If reef fish feed on uyabang, they are not performing important reef functions, like feeding on algae and grazing on sea beds, (which help) maintain the health of ecosystems,” the report read.
“This can have serious implications on the use of the reefs as source of protein (food),” it added.
Since damaged and algae-covered reefs support less biomass and fish diversity, fish stocks in the area may decline as a result.
Lamave noted that while touching the sharks is not allowed, more than 1,800 touching instances occurred during the study period.
Nearly 90 percent of these incidents were done by fishermen tasked to feed the whale sharks. Touching was in the form of stroking, pushing away the sharks by hand or feet to communicate with the animals that there is no food or to signal a pause in the feeding.
Four percent of the touching incidents were done by guests.
Eliseo said among their guests, most of the offenses were committed by South Korean nationals. They were given warnings by the Bantay Dagat but no one has been fined yet, he added.
He said Towwfa members are also mindful of the touching prohibition because they might get a reprimand or, worse, be disallowed from accepting guests.
The Lamave report raised other issues like waste management, damage to corals caused by untrained divers and potential pollution problems caused by cleaning chemicals used by resorts, which have grown in number in Tan-awan due to the whale shark watching activity.
While Lamave sees the need for further study on the whale sharks in Oslob, it raised the importance of educating visitors and the community.
“Visitors need to be educated on their impact on the lives of the whale sharks and on the environment, both in the water and on land. When entering the water, people are entering the whale shark's environment and must respect that habitat,” it said.
It said efforts of the local government to implement measures to ensure the safety of the sharks and visitors have a “good structure,” but enforcement must be consistent. (Sun.Star Cebu)
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 30, 2012.