Philippines: Plea to stop feeding whale sharks

Cris Evert B. Lato Inquirer Visayas 27 Jul 12;

CEBU CITY—A photograph of a wounded “butanding” or whale shark has gone viral on social networking sites.

The butanding turned out to be “Fermin,” one of the whale sharks that regularly approach the bancas to be fed by fishermen and tourists in the waters off Oslob town, 117 kilometers south of Cebu City.

According to marine researchers, Fermin suffered deep cuts that might have been caused by boat propellers, renewing calls to stop the practice of feeding the whale sharks, which has become a major tourist attraction in Oslob.

The practice doesn’t only diminish the whale sharks’ ability to hunt for food, but it also puts them at risk of getting hurt like what happened to Fermin.


Dr. Alessandro Ponzo, president of the Italian marine research organization Physalus, said Fermin was seen on June 20 in the water off Barangay Tan-awan, Oslob town, with “very deep propeller cuts on the head.”

Physalus initiated the Large Marine Vertebrates Project (Lamave) in the Philippines in 2010. The project pushes for conservation of marine animals through education and research, and works with government agencies to reach out to communities and the private sector. It started its marine research efforts in Bohol province and later expanded to the neighboring provinces of Negros Oriental and Cebu.

Lamave researchers are in Oslob to check on Fermin. Samantha Craven, Lamave’s principal investigator on the Oslob Whale Shark Project, said Fermin suffered 11 cuts including a wound that cut across his left eye. They could not yet tell the extent of the damage to the eye.

She said sharks were fast healers so they continue to monitor Fermin’s healing. “People should know that it is wrong to treat the wounds of wildlife with our medicines. A lot of them are allergic to our medicines and that may cause harm and slow down the healing process,” said Craven, a marine biologist who is half-Filipino and half-British.

Craven said Fermin was last seen in the waters off Oslob on July 16. When he returned on July 20, local fishermen said Fermin was not feeding and had several scars across his face.

Fermin or Shark P-382 is the first whale shark identified in December 2011 by marine biologist Elson Aca, World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Philippines’ project manager.

Fermin’s presence along with six other whale sharks in the waters off Oslob have enticed tourists to visit the southern Cebu town to interact with the “gentle giants.” Local fishermen with some tourists on board paddle boats and feed the whale sharks with baby shrimps, locally called “uyap,” as they swim around the designated interaction area, which is about 30 meters from the shoreline.

Interaction is between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. so the whale sharks can “rest.” Motorboats are not allowed in whale watching.

Whale shark feeding has become a major tourism attraction and income-earner of Oslob, a fourth-class municipality with a population of about 26,000 based on the 2010 census.

But the practice has long been opposed by Aca and Lamave researchers because it disrupts the whale sharks’ natural feeding behavior.

In his open letter to the secretaries of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Aca said scientists studying whale sharks in the Philippines were concerned about the possible changes in behavior of these whale sharks in Oslob that are now accustomed to feeding.

He said discussions about Oslob’s new tourist attraction didn’t focus on the whale sharks but only on the activity’s tourism potential.

“Whale sharks exhibited head scratches and scrapes from bumping into feeder boats. In addition, they have been observed to seemingly associate bubbles from divers and snorkelers with food,” he said in his letter.

“While this behavior is already accepted and understood by the fishermen of Oslob (who are not allowed to use motorboats to protect the whale sharks), it might pose a different situation once these migratory whale sharks move outside of Oslob,” he added.

In the case of Fermin, Aca said the whale shark’s usual approach of bumping the boat from behind might be seen as an aggressive behavior by other fishermen, causing them to turn on their motors and leave. Fermin might be hit by the propeller causing the wounds, Aca said.


Whale sharks are classified as vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are also listed in both Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, and the Convention on Migratory Species.

Aca said the whale shark was also protected in the Philippines under Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, and Republic Act No. 8550 or the Philippine Fisheries Code.

“There surely is some kind of overlapping task between these agencies but instead of pointing to each other and/or claiming responsibilities, it is always beneficial if both can work together to achieve a certain goal,” he said.

Physalus’ Lamave project has identified over 60 whale sharks in the interaction area of Tan-awan, Oslob. Ten of them are seen daily, an increase from the six seen last April.

In its statement, Lamave said the number of propeller scars on the sharks in Oslob had increased since June although not as grave as what happened to Fermin.

They also expressed concern over the intent of neighboring municipalities like Moalboal, which is currently discussing an ordinance for whale shark interaction with intent to feed.

Spread of feeding

Craven said Fermin was the first of the whale sharks to obtain serious injury but this number could increase as sharks continue to develop the behavior of associating boats with food.

“The spread of feeding activities to other municipalities would exponentially increase the number of sharks learning this behavior, and thereby exposing a greater proportion of the whale shark population in the Visayas to serious injury,” Lamave said in its statement.

Craven said they would continue to work with the local community to raise awareness and education about marine life. “There is still not enough education and awareness about the butanding. A lot of people still call them whales. There has to be a collaborative effort among all people to make this more sustainable,” said Craven.

Propeller-Slashed Whale Shark Highlights Ecotourism Danger
Stephanie Pappas LiveScience 30 Jul 12;

A whale shark nicknamed Fermin who has become a popular tourist attraction in the Philippines has been slashed across the face by a boat propeller, marine biologists report.

The gentle giant — whale sharks can grown more than 40 feet (12 meters) long but eat mostly tiny plankton — is a common sight in the tourist area in Tan-awan, Oslob, a resort town in Cebu. In this area of ocean, boat operators are allowed to feed whale sharks, bringing them near their boats so tourists can see the enormous fish close up.

The practice is a popular one, but marine biologists are concerned. Not only does feeding sharks teach them to associate boats with free meals, said Samantha Craven, a scientist with the Philippines Large Marine Vertebrates Project, it also seems to dissuade the sharks from their natural migrations.

"If these sharks reach sexual maturity and don't migrate to breeding grounds, they are effectively removed from the population and would no longer be adding to the numbers of genetic diversity of their species, which is listed as 'vulnerable to extinction' by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature]," Craven told LiveScience. [Gallery: The Mysterious Lives of Whale Sharks]

A whale shark injury

Fermin is one of six whale sharks that has been feeding from the tourist boats nearly daily since late March, according to the Large Marine Vertebrates Project. The group, part of the nongovernmental organization Physalus, is the only one doing research in this area of the ocean.

Most days, a dozen or more sharks show up, Craven said, but Fermin is one of the most regular boat visitors. Between July 17 and July 19, though, Fermin disappeared. When he returned on July 20, his face was scarred with 11 deep cuts, one right across his left eye.

Whale sharks are vulnerable to propeller cuts because they're difficult to see when they swim just below the surface, Craven said. But most whale sharks that have been hit show scars on their backs or fins, indicating they've been run over. Fermin's injuries are different.

"Fermin's scars are at the front of his face, indicating contact was made head-on, as if he actively approached the boat," Craven said. [See images of Fermin's Injuries]

The grisly wounds likely came from a small propeller boat. No motor boats are allowed within the Tan-awan feeding area, and it is not clear where Fermin had his run-in. It's likely, however, that he approached a boat looking for food and came away with an injury instead.

The whale sharks that feed at Tan-awan all sport odd calluses around their mouths where they rub against the boats as fishermen drop shrimp meals into the water, Craven said. But recently, more troubling marks have been showing up.

"Since June, we have seen an increase in smaller propeller scars on the regular sharks," Craven said. "None as severe as Fermin, but I worry that it is a matter of time."

The ethics of shark feeding

Strict rules govern the interactions between humans and sharks in the Tan-awan feeding area. No more than six tourists and four scuba divers may approach one shark at a time, and no one may touch the sharks. Only members of the local fisherman's association are allowed to feed the animals.

The rules are good ones, Craven said, but they're broken "on a daily basis." The situation pits conservation against education and tourism dollars.

"I do believe that increased education and awareness about whale sharks is important, but this is a high price to pay, when more sustainable options are already proven," Craven said. "Even if there was a way to feed the sharks without creating an association of food with boats and people, we are still preventing them from migrating."

Whale shark researcher Jennifer Schmidt, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she felt "sick to her stomach" when she saw the photographs of Fermin's injuries. Properly regulated ecotourism that allows divers to swim alongside naturally feeding sharks doesn't seem to disrupt these threatened animals' behavior, Schmidt said. But feeding the sharks appears to be a recipe for disaster.

"I was in Oslob in April, and I saw the situation there — boats, many boats, and
sharks and swimmers and even divers all in an extremely chaotic mix," Schmidt said. "It was only a matter of time before either a shark or a person was injured, and unfortunately as long as this activity continues more sharks will be injured, even killed."

Fermin's future

Since his disappearance and injury, Fermin has returned to the feeding area almost daily, Craven said. His wounds appear to be healing, but he usually has his eye rolled back. Whale sharks commonly roll their eyes back to protect them, but Craven said it's not clear whether Fermin is rolling back his eye because of pain or because scar tissue is hindering his ability to move his eye muscles.

"I think we have to wait to see how the wounds heal, and see how the eye is over the next two weeks before we will know more," Craven said.

The popularity of Tan-awan's whale shark feedings has spurred the nearby town of Moalboal to look into allowing similar interactions in their stretch of coastline. One Philippine senator has proposed banning whale shark feeding nationally, Craven said, but it is uncertain if it will be approved.

"I think this industry is so lucrative that one shark with a bad propeller cut is not enough to stop it locally," Craven said. "It will only stop if there is regulation from national law, coupled with education on the ground as to why it is bad, and what alternative activities can be run."