Indonesia: Residents ignore safeguards meant to protect whale sharks

Syamsul Huda M. Suhari The Jakarta Post 29 Jul 16;

As tourists flock to Botubarani village, Bone Bolango regency, the waters of which are home to whale sharks, visitors have chosen to ignore rules made by the local administration to protect the animals.

The Gorontalo provincial marine and fishery agency and a number of other relevant institutions at one time closed the tourist attraction because of environmental considerations and set rules to protect the rare species.

Among the regulations were ones that banned visitors from touching and feeding the animals and limited the number of boats entering the whale shark zone to only five at a time.

The attraction was reopened in April after the administration decided on the zoning of the site and came up with a series of tight regulations on how to interact with the whale sharks.

From the reopening until the beginning of July as Muslims celebrated Idul Fitri, more than 9,000 domestic and foreign tourists were reported to have visited the site.

In practice, however, the regulations survived only for a month. No limitations are enforced any more on the number of boats entering the 10,000-square-meter whale shark zone as was ordered by the rules. Visitors as well can now freely touch and feed the animals with shrimp heads that they buy from locals.

Last weekend, for example, some 10 boats carrying between three and six visitors each were seen sailing into the whale shark zone at the same time. A snorkeler was even seen trying to ride on a whale shark.

Used plastic bags that were used to pack whale shark food or snacks can now be seen floating on the waters in the tourist site, which can be reached in only 15 minutes from downtown Gorontalo city.

Ridwan Abdul, 50, a local fisherman who rented his boat to visitors, said that the regulations have disadvantaged locals. “The limitation on the number of boats made our income plunge to only Rp 50,000 [US$3.8] to Rp 100,000 per day from a previous Rp 300,000 to Rp 400,000,” said the father of three who has stopped fishing for the last three months.

Casandra Tania, a marine species officer with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), said that feeding whale sharks from boats could change the natural behavior of the animals, which are known for being tame.

The feeding, she said, prevents the animals from wandering farther afield to get food naturally and in a variety that later could also influence their growth. Feeding the sharks from a boat as a tourist attraction made the animals assume that when there was a boat present it must have food. “Imagine what happens next when the whale sharks approach a hunter’s boat,” she said.

The practice, she added, also caused the sharks to be wounded because of the boat propellers that hit them as they compete for the food. This also could endanger the people on board the boats. “Whale sharks are known for being tame, but once they feel uncomfortable they can just flick their tails and this is dangerous,” she said.

Observations conducted by the WWF and Whale Shark Indonesia (WSID) this year revealed that there were 17 juvenile whale sharks that were each three to seven meters long in Botubarani.

The whale shark site in Gorontalo is considered unique because it is not far from the downtown area and is situated only a few meters from the beach. This is different from the other whale shark tourist attractions in the country.

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