Monday, October 7, 2019

Let the whale sharks swim free.

The Save the Sharks mural is a community street art project produced during the 3rd Shark Summit held in Bohol last November 12-16, 2018.

At the public consultation held in the Baclayon Cultural Center last Thursday, October 3 for the proposed municipal ordinance entitled “Providing regulatory guidelines for the conservation of whale sharks within the municipal waters of the Municipality of Baclayon” authored by Councilor Erico Joseph T. Cañete, the first stakeholder opinion was from a fisherman, and it was in opposition to the ordinance. His statement was brief, and but the gist of it is captured in this quip: “kay naa na man jud nang mga whale sharks, nganong di man na ‘nato pahimuslan”. (A fraction of the audience actually applauded to this; the nays had a contingent.)

Pagpahimulos. To make useful. To exploit. To take advantage of. This is exactly what this proposed ordinance wants to prohibit – the exploitation of whale sharks.

The proposed ordinance, as recounted by Environment Committee Chair Councilor Sendoy Guingguing, was filed by Councilor Cañete in response to an application for a whale shark interaction tourism enterprise in Baclayon which entails feeding the whale sharks who naturally and seasonally pass through the area, with the intention of luring them to congregate in an area nearer to the Baclayon mainland shores and keeping them there year-round for tourism purposes ala-Tan-awan in Oslob. In fact, Councilor Cañete said he has already observed fisherfolks feeding whale sharks in the said area, which is why he deems it imperative to pass this ordinance.

Councilor Cañete authored the proposed whale shark conservation ordinance.

The ordinance proposes to prohibit and penalize the following activities that constitute mishandling of whale sharks:

  • Altering their migratory nature by trapping them in a particular area, as baited by food, within the municipal waters of Baclayon, 
  • Feeding them with krill or shrimps or any other artificial food instead of their normal diet on nutrient aggregations of plankton; an act which begets adverse effects on their health and reproduction, and 
  • Swimming, snorkeling, riding, touching the whale sharks or any form of physical contact which either results to health issues on both humans and whale sharks. 

Whale shark watching – which is covered by regulations under the Baclayon Municipal Ordinance No. 04, series of 2011, “Providing Regulatory Guidelines for a More Sustainable Cetacean Tourism Management through the Use of Cetacean Interaction Guidelines, User Conservation Fees, Licensing System, Setting Manageable Limits for Tourism and Preferential Access for the Former Whale Hunters within the Territorial Waters of the Municipality of Baclayon” – is still allowed, the proposed ordinance is clear on this.

Fisherfolks from Pamilacan Island who run seasonal whale shark, whale and dolphin watching tours in the waters around the island are supportive of the proposed ordinance. Although they could not bring a large group, they came with a statement of support signed by a good number of Pamilacanons. The three who spoke during the public consultation all recalled the Pamilacan traditional living of hunting down and killing whale sharks and how they, with pressure from the 1998 whale shark and manta ray hunting ban, have come to abandon that unsustainable fishing tradition and instead learned and embraced eco-tourism as an alternative sustainable means of livelihood. Hearing the language that they used in voicing out their support in outlawing the feed-trapping of whale sharks within the Baclayon waters, it is clear that they have taken to heart their learning and experiences from abandoning generations of whale shark hunting tradition and having shifted to being nurturers of these sea giants.

In fact, Pamilacan’s transition from whale shark/ manta ray hunting to whale and dolphin watching tourism is a much-lauded success story in eco-tourism and marine conservation – it was a finalist in the Conservation Category of the World Travel & Tourism Council’s 2006 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, the highest accolade for best practices in tourism development around the world. With the implementation in 1998 of the Fisheries Administrative Order (FAO) No. 193 which banned the taking or catching, selling, purchasing and possessing, transporting and exporting of whale sharks and manta rays in Philippine waters, and the fruits of years of negotiating with and educating the community, Pamilacan Island’s whale hunters were organized into the Pamilacan Island Dolphin and Whale Watching Organization (PIDWWO) with the help of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Department of Tourism (DOT), and the municipality of Baclayon. To this day, dolphin and (seasonal) whale watching around the Pamilacan waters is one of Bohol’s featured tourism offering.

“Our families have hunted these whale sharks before, everyone knows this, but we have stopped because of the government ban and the education and support given to us by the WWF and the government. We now do dolphin and whale watching tourism. These whale sharks come naturally, there is no need to change their natural migration. We just have to follow the seasonality of their visits.”

The understanding of seasonality and sustainability is one thing that the members of the Bohol tourism industry share with the Pamilacan community. Bohol’s organization of tour operators, tourism transport operators and tour guides were well-represented at the public hearing and expressed their full support to the proposed whale shark conservation ordinance in Baclayon. Doris Dinorog Obena, president of the Kahugpungan sa mga Bol-anong Tour Guides (KABOG), Inc., said that in the tourism industry there are also peak and off-peak seasons where their jobs as tour guides are greatly affected. But by being aware of this seasonality, they have come to prepare for the lean months and look for alternative livelihood sources. Allowing of unsustainable practices like the feeding of whale sharks and creating year-round whale shark interaction tourism in Baclayon will boost the income of some people, yes and tour guides will be one of the first who can financially benefit from this, however, the issue is not just about the economic benefits. Disrupting the natural feeding and migration patterns of whale sharks will have greater repercussions that will not only affect Baclayon but the whole of Bohol and its eco-tourism sector.

“Let us not kill the hen that lays the golden eggs”, Dinorog Obena stressed.

Lourdes T. Sultan of the Bohol Federation of Travel and Tour Operators (BOFETTO) concurs and made it absolutely clear that their organization will not support whale shark interaction tourism in Baclayon and elsewhere in Bohol.

By committing to the tenets of sustainable and ecological tourism, Bohol’s tourism sector is throwing away a missed opportunity to profit in the business of willfully exploiting whale sharks. Looking at the millions raked in by Oslob’s whale shark interaction tourism, pragmatists and the non-environmentalists would, of course, think only of the gains that can be made.

Scene from the public consultation on the proposed whale shark conservation ordinance that prohibits whale shark feeding, altering of their migration pattern, and harmful interaction with them

As one fisherman put it, “The people of Oslob (Tan-awan) are profiting from these whale sharks; they now have cars, etc. Why are we deprived from gaining the same?” These fishermen, according to the consultation backgrounder, were among those who were against the proposed whale shark interaction tourism and the feeding of whale sharks in Baclayon. But when they were promised of greater income and other benefits, they changed their minds and now fully support the whale shark interaction tourism and the whole nine yards of entrapping the whale sharks to Baclayon’s municipal waters.

“We will just be feeding them. They are free to go if they want to.” “The frozen shrimps given to them are not artificial; it will just be the same as the natural and will not harm them.” “These whale sharks compete with us in catching the ‘bolinao’ in Baclayon. And they damage our boats and nets when they accidentally hit us. Will you give us money to repair the damaged parts of our boats?”

If these sound familiar, it’s because these arguments are just as absurd as Oslob’s rationalization of their exploitative whale shark interaction tourism.

A representative from the Oslob research station of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE), the largest independent non-stock non-government organization dedicated to the conservation of marine megafauna and the marine environment in the Philippines, came to Baclayon just for this consultation.

Christine Legaspi, Project Leader of LAMAVE’s Cebu Whale Sharks and Turtles Project, said that Oslob’s artificial provisioning of the whale sharks is not only harmful to the whale sharks but the whole whale shark interaction tourism has greater and wider ecological impacts. Baclayon should, instead, look to sustainable whale shark tourism practices in Panaon Island, Southern Leyte and Honda Bay in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Their tours are strictly seasonal, and interaction guidelines are stringently followed and implemented by the tour operators.

Also LAMAVE along with research collaborators from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the University of Guam (UoG), released their findings in late 2018 which showed that the mass whale shark tourism in Oslob fueled by the year-round presence of whale sharks in its local shallow reef has led to the degradation of the coral reef ecosystem in Barangay Tan-awan, Oslob.

Unless there’s a law that will explicitly prohibit the artificial feeding of whale sharks and trapping them into one’s shallow reefs, it will be hard for Oslob to abandon its rain-making whale shark tourism. Pamilacan’s former whale hunters know this. The promise of riches will be hard to turn down when literal gold (and shrimps) are dangled in front of your face. Whale shark conservation ordinance author Councilor Eric Cañete knows this. Once unsustainable mass whale shark tourism will be initiated in Bohol, there’s no turning back. Bohol’s tourism sector knows this.

Hence, it is urgent that this proposed ordinance be passed. Trapping, feeding, harmful interaction, and other activities which can alter the natural migratory, aggregation and consumption patterns of whale sharks that seasonally cruise through Bohol waters should not be allowed. That pending investment application for whale shark interaction tourism should be dismissed.

It was mentioned at the hearing that there is a similar pending investment proposal in Lila. A similar ordinance at the provincial level should also be passed to prevent all other municipalities from entertaining proposals for unsustainable whale shark tourism.

Bohol is one of the country’s model eco-tourism destination, but it is not perfect. We are grappling with tourism carrying capacity issues, fuzzy practices in our overlapping wildlife conservation and tourism sector (i.e. overstressed tarsiers, dolphin-chasing, and these poor wildlife zoo/parks), and fake flower gardens. Allowing mass whale shark tourism will be the end of us. It was heartening that the majority of the audience in attendance at the public hearing are supportive of Councilor Cañete’s proposed ordinance. But the voices of the few that opposed the ordinance and are supportive of exploiting the whale sharks for monetary gains cut deep.

“Nganong di man nato sila pahimuslan?” “Nganong taga Oslob ug taga-Pamilacan ra man ang pwedeng makakwarta ani nila?”

While we do not dismiss the needs of these fisherfolks to make a living and gain better chances in progressing in life, it is just wrong to think that these whale sharks and other creatures, really, to be things which we should exploit and profit from.

"The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not found in us,” states Pope Francis’ ecological encyclical “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home”. All creatures have the natural right to exist and freely live out its life cycles and functions. Other living creatures are not just objects for human domination and caprice.

The whale sharks are the largest fish species in the world. According to the WWF, these docile gentle giants are non-predatory, filter-feed on plankton and small fishes, and roam the seas around the globe, generally alone. But large numbers of whale sharks often gather in plankton-rich areas, and the Bohol sea is lucky to be one of them. That the whale sharks still come and cruise through the Bohol sea, means that ours seas are in good health. That we still see whale sharks cruise through the Bohol sea, means that they still can swim through, without being hunted or killed. We’re alright, the whale sharks are alright.

Let’s let the whale sharks swim free.

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