Swimming with the whale sharks

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Sunday, January 29, 2012


CEBU CITY -- While the tourism industry in Tan-awan is booming, the barangay and the Municipal Government cannot agree on the income-sharing scheme drawn by the town hall.

An ordinance passed by the Municipal Council provides that fees from visitors be divided into 60 percent to participating fishermen, 30 percent to the Municipal Government and 10 percent for the barangay.

Tan-awan Barangay Councilor James Marimat said the barangay is proposing that its share be increased to 20 percent and the Municipal Government’s share be lowered to 20 percent.

CEBU. Domestic and foreign tourists flock to Tan-awan, Oslob to come close to whale sharks, causing nature conservationists to worry about the effect of mass tourism on the sea creatures. (Contributed photo/Rianne Tecson)

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He said the barangay should have a bigger share because it is the one directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the whale shark tourism industry.

“Kun wa ang taga tourism, kami gud ang naa diha sa briefing area. Kami pa gyud ang kasab-an o basolon sa mga taw kun magkina-unsa (If the municipal tourism officer is not present, we are the ones who take care of the briefing area. We also get the flak when things go wrong),” he told Sun.Star in an interview.

Ramonito Lagahid, Oslob Whale Shark Wardens’ Association (Owwa) president, said fishermen-boatmen also want their share increased.

Boatmen get P180 for every non-Oslob resident who watches the whale shark on their boats.

Lagahid said the amount is not enough for the efforts of fishermen-boatmen who still have to catch krill at night so they have something to feed the whale sharks during the day.

Sharing

“Ang pangayo nila na isirado nalang gyud P200 kay kun taga Oslob ang bisita, menos baya ang bayad (Fishers are asking for P200 because the fee for Oslob residents is lower),” he said.

Oslob residents pay only P30 each to see the whale sharks. Of the amount, fishermen-boatmen get only P18.

Oslob Mayor Ronald Guaren told Sun.Star Cebu over the phone that he has not heard of the fishermen and the barangay’s opposition to the sharing scheme.

“They are satisfied with the sharing scheme,” he said, adding that the Municipal Government’s share of the fees will be used to implement projects to improve tourism facilities in Tan-awan.

Among the plans of the Municipal Government is to build boats that can be used by the fishermen to bring tourists to the feeding area.

Owwa has 21 boats, which are being used in whale shark watching. Some of these boats can accommodate only one person but others can carry as many as four.

Guaren said the town will also build an appropriate briefing center.

On conservationists’ view that feeding can be disadvantageous to the whale sharks, the mayor said the giant sea creatures are free to hunt for food.

Observation

Still, Guaren said, he has directed fishermen to observe the whale sharks for three months to determine if the practice of feeding the creatures has adverse effects.

The fishermen’s observations can be used by a technical working group (TWG) created by Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia to draft management plans for the whale sharks in Tan-awan.

The TWG, Guaren said, is made up of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, local government representatives and experts from the private sector.

The findings of the TWG, he said, will be used as basis for “refining” the ordinance on the whale shark watching industry in the town.

More people are expected to visit Tan-awan to see the whale sharks, as news about their presence spreads in online social networks.

But even some of those who are in awe of the gigantic creatures are concerned about the lack of appropriate management policies in Tan-awan.

Melendres said the “no touching” policy and regulating the number of people and boats in the area at one time should be strictly enforced.

Limits

Some semblance of control on the number of people and boats in the feeding area is in place, but only because Owwa has a limited number of boats.

Even then, boats sometimes hit whale sharks in the fishermen’s — or their guests’ — eagerness to go near the sharks. Some sharks have wounds and scars on the head.

The Shark Trust and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme advise whale shark watchers to enter the water quietly and to avoid making noises or sharp movements — like too much splashing — in the presence of the sharks.

The shark conservation groups also advise against duck-diving, particularly near the head and tail of the shark or swimming underneath the creature.

While whale sharks are gentle creatures, their tails are powerful and can injure anyone or anything they hit.

Shark Trust recommends that the number of people in the water should be limited to 12 at any given time.

Economy

Without a doubt, the whale sharks’ presence has improved the income of fisherfolk in Tan-awan.

Reymond Soriano, 16, and his father have a boat that can carry only one guest at a time. But even then, Reymond admitted that his family’s income has improved because of the whale sharks.

Apart from the Owwa fishermen, other Tan-awan residents have also cashed in on the whale sharks’ presence by selling food to visitors. Some residents rent out life vests at P30 each.

At present, it is not known what Tan-awan fisherfolk will do when the whale sharks go on their migratory route. The sharks are known to migrate in spring — generally around April to May — to the central west coast of Australia.

John Richardson, conservation officer of United Kingdom - based Shark Trust, said authorities in Cebu should put in place a management system that “follows guidelines designed to protect the sharks from disturbance and injury, while at the same time giving people an amazing opportunity to see” the whale sharks.

“If this (management) is done correctly, the whale sharks may continue to return each year, which is good … for the local economy and residents,” said Richardson in an e-mail. (LAP of Sun.Star Cebu)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on January 29, 2012.

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