Philippines: Whale shark population increases - WWF

Business Mirror 9 Sep 19;

More than 100 new ‘butanding’ (whale shark), including juveniles, spotted in Donsol, the highest number in several years.

DONSOL, Sorsogon—One-hundred-four new butanding (whale shark) individuals have been identified in Ticao Pass off the coast of Donsol, Sorsogon, between January and June 2019, according to a report from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Philippines.

Whale shark, classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on their Red List of Threatened Species, is a filter-feeding carpet shark and the largest living fish species in the world.

Each whale shark can be identified based on the unique pattern of spots behind its gills, which serves as a “fingerprint” for identification. Just as no two human fingerprints are alike, no two whale sharks have the same spot pattern.

The addition of these new sightings puts the total number of whale shark individuals spotted in Donsol at 676 since the monitoring began in 2007, the WWF said in its news release.

This represents nearly 40 percent of all the 1,724 whale sharks identified in the Philippines. The number of individuals spotted in 2019 was also the largest in several years, with only 22 new individuals spotted in Donsol between 2017 and 2018 by comparison.

The whale sharks were sighted during this year’s photo identification activities conducted by WWF-Philippines. In the first half of this year, 168 individuals—with 64 re-sightings alongside the 104 newly identified ones—were noted.

Very young whale shark juveniles were also identified among the 168 individuals that were spotted. Their presence suggests that the Ticao Pass may be a pupping ground for whale sharks, further increasing the ecological significance of the area.

“These whale sharks that pass by Donsol aren’t just important due to their value to local tourism. More than that, they play an important systemic role in providing resilience to the local ecosystem,” said WWF-Philippines Donsol Project Manager Manuel Narvadez Jr. in the news release.

“The number of whale sharks spotted in Donsol indicates that its waters are now rich with plankton, which is their primary food. They have even come here with their young,” he added.

WWF-Philippines has been active in Donsol since 1998 and has actively worked with the local government unit (LGU) for more than two decades for the conservation of the Ticao Pass and the local whale sharks.

The whale shark census, which monitors the number of whale shark individuals passing through Donsol, began in 2007.

A thriving ecotourism industry centered on communal participation in the conservation of the whale shark has helped Donsol rise from a fifth-class municipality on its way to first class.

Conservation activities in the Ticao Pass between WWF-Philippines and the LGU of Donsol will continue in the coming years. WWF-Philippines is currently exploring options of expanding the current Marine Protected Areas (MPA), or establishing new ones in neighboring Masbate municipality to further protect the Ticao Pass and its inhabitants.

“Whale shark tourism at Donsol is a long established eco-tourism venture, which the WWF-Philippines team helped set up and running. After so many years, it is very gratifying to see local communities and the whale sharks continuing to benefit,” said Dr. Andy Cornish, leader of “Sharks: Restoring the Balance,” WWF’s global shark and ray conservation program.

“Protecting more marine areas near Donsol could play a key role in enhancing protection for these endangered ocean nomads for generations to come,” Cornish said.

WWF’s global program on sharks includes work to conserve whale sharks in Ecuador, Mexico, Pakistan, and Tanzania, in addition to the Philippines, it added in its news release.