Philippines: Future of whale shark tours under scrutiny

Cebu Daily News 24 Jun 13;

Should the whale shark tours in Oslob town be scrapped permanently to avoid harming the marine creatures?

Any recommendation to do so would have to factor in the impact it would create on the livelihood of Oslob fisherfolk and residents, incoming Rep. Wilfredo Caminero of Cebu’s 2nd district said.

If it continues, the Italy-based non-profit organization Phsyalus said Oslob town should at least strictly enforce the “no touching” policy on tourists if they cannot stop them from feeding the whale sharks.

Caminero said thousands of Oslob locals who directly benefit from the whale shark tours will be affected specifically the fisherfolk who bring the tourists close to the whale sharks.

He said resorts and shops that service the foreign and local tourists will also suffer from the cancellation of the whale shark tours.

“A lot of factors should be considered before reaching a decision on that matter. Are there any environmental laws violated?,” Caminero said.

While saying he is against the cancellation of the whale shark tours, Caminero said he will abide by the decision of the Regional Development Council (RDC).

Phsyalus said their five-month study on the effects of the human activities on the whale sharks in Oslob town showed that the creatures sustained wounds caused by contact with propellers on the boats used by the tourists who feed them.

The whale sharks abound in Tan-awan Oslob, where they are fed with krill locally known as uyap by registered boatmen in the town.

In their count, about 246 tourists visit Tan-awan on weekdays and 643 tourists on weekends.

While a local ordinance prohibits tourists from touching or getting close to the whale shark, Physalus recorded 1832 ‘active touches’ of the whale sharks equating to 29 touches per hour.

“The feeders have also been observed to occasionally stroke the sharks and push them away in an attempt to discourage the shark and communicate to the animal the non-intention to feed,” the study reads.

About 89 percent were initiated by the feeders that touch the mouth of the whale sharks. “The stress related to disturbance can be high enough to displace the shark from the area,” Phsyalus said.

It said frequent human contact can have a detrimental effect on the whale shark population by eliminating important feeding areas or migration corridors.

As of July 31, Physalus identified 62 individual whale sharks measuring from three meters to seven meters. Most of them are juvenile sharks.

“We strongly believe that proper information and education are the foundation of environmental conservation, and this is the reason why this report is open to the public,” said Alessandro Ponzo, president of the Italian-based Physalus.

“Physalus understands the importance of tourism as a source of livelihood for the local community, but to make it a real long-term alternative and to improve the welfare of the community it has to be done in a sustainable way,” he said. /Marian Z. Codilla and Peter L. Romanillos