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How much does a whale shark cost?

In the Philippines and in Papua New Guinea, communities can benefit from whale shark ecotourism. But each country has its own culture and attitudes…

Not too long ago, the fishermen of the village of Donsol were hunting whale sharks, and numbers were declining. Nowadays, the fishermen have discovered that whale shark tourism makes good business. The World Wildlife Fund Philippines, the UNDP and the local government together developed a community-based ecotourism and conservation programme, with the aim of providing local people with a sustainable income whilst protecting the species. Donsol is now one of the world’s most popular destinations for whale shark tourism.

 

Whale shark and fishermen, picture: Conservation International / Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock

But a code of conduct is desperately needed, existing interaction guidelines are not followed.  A substantial number of concerned visitors have reported that regulations have not been implemented, thereby posing a threat to the whale shark populations. Some experts also state feel that feeding the whale sharks can alter their natural behaviour and influence their natural migration patterns. The increase in tourist numbers has given rise to a parallel increase of non-compliance to the existing interaction guidelines. A substantial number of concerned visitors have reported that regulations have not been implemented, thereby posing a threat to the whale shark populations.

“Whale sharks are really amazing animals. They are very gentle. But people should remember that they are wildlife animals and feeding them could pose more harm than good,” said Alan Amanse, who was president of Donsol’s Butanding Interaction Officers Association from 1998 to 2010. He feels whale sharks are leaving because of several factors, one of them severe stress  (read more at: http://www.bicolmail.com/2012/?p=9968)

The area is heavily overfished, and the whole community could benefit from fishing and ecotourism regulations, that would provide long term protection for all fish stocks. The “whale shark eco tourism” of course generates an income to local stakelholders, but without proper management, this could all stop.

In  Papua New Guinea, where whale shark tourism is on the rise, there is however another problem. There have been research papers that indicate that sharks can be worth a lot of money because of shark diving tourism in Palau (http://www.pewenvironment.org/news-room/press-releases/million-dollar-sharks-an-economic-driver-for-palau-85899359234)and Fiji (http://www.pewenvironment.org/news-room/press-releases/shark-dive-tourism-in-fiji-worth-us422-million-a-year-85899379487), but how much should local people actually get?

Lida Pet-Soedle of the World Wildlife Fund writes about her experiences in Papua New Guinea, where whale sharks are present in the Cendrawasih National Park, and experts are investiging possibility for eco tourism. There had been a conflict between the  fishers, mostly temporary fishers from Sulawesi several miles away), the communities living in the area, and the live aboard dive operators who had started to give the lift net fishers money in order for tourists to swim around their platforms. But one community member had threatened to kill the whale sharks because the economic benefits of the tourism activities were not being shared with his community—the rightful “owners” of the area concerned. He felt that  if his community would not benefit from the whale sharks, then no one else should. This conflict is now solved, but it generated questions.

On her way to Cendrawasish, the airport was closed because of a conflict about payments. The local community asked for half a million US dollars. Having paid 20% of it to open up the airport again, the government now faces tough negotiations for the remaining request.

 

Whale Sharks in Cenderawasih Bay, picture Jones/Shimlock, Secret Sea Visions

Lida states: “This example illustrates to me how important it is to invest in outreach and education especially among the young Papuan generation.If we start putting a cash value on everything that falls under the hak ulayat tenure scheme ( strong traditional tenure regulations), there may be no end to the payments. ” She feels there has to be an understanding of the importance of sustainable fishing and habitat protection, and there is an urgent need to improve collaborative management for the sustainability of fish populations.

Read her full blog on:

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/09/11/how-much-do-whale-sharks-cost/

Watch the whale sharks of Cenderawasih Bay in this video:

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