Sharks play an essential rol in the health of our oceans


‘(Whale)shark tourism’: a blessing?

Tan-awan, in the southern Philippines island of Cebu, was always a sleepy village. Now hundreds of tourists come here to swim with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish.
Whale sharks are lured to the Tan-awan coastline of the Oslob district by fishermen who hand feed them small shrimp, drawing divers and snorkelers to see the highly sought-after animals, known as gentle giants of the sea.

But the practice has sparked fierce debate on the internet and among biologists, who decry it as unnatural.
But for the fishermen, it is also a good source of income.


A whale shark and tourist

According to Ramonito Lagahid, vice chairman of the Tan-awan Oslob Sea Warden and Fishermen Association (TOSWFA), there have always been whale sharks in Tan-awan. He remembers seeing them even when he was young. So are the whale sharks here because they are fed, or are they just following their ancient migration patterns, following their food?
“They are always around when we go out at night to collect ‘uyap’, he said, referring to a kind of small shrimp that the whale sharks are fed. “Many times we have to stop fishing because the whale sharks are around.” It seems to be natural behavior, that is now exploited. Large aggregations for whale sharks occur in more places, also in Djibouti and the Saudi Arabian Red Sea.

But since the word about the whale sharks of Tan-awan was spread through the internet two years ago, tourist numbers are exploding, and a record high was over 1600 snorkellers on one day.

What has happened here, has happened in more places: Maldivian Hanifaru, now a marine park, where diving is strictly regulated after the small reef was crowded by tourist boats; famous Dolphin House Reef in Egypt, where snorkeling is now only permitted under certain conditions as the dolphins were constantly harassed by snorkelers, and many other places.

In Fiji and Palau, shark diving provides shark conservation and shark research (see our blogpost of Friday: According to socio-economic analyses, a  live shark can be very valuable, generating 180,000 USD per jaar in revenue, whereas a dead shark will only create a short-term profit of around 50 USD…

The tourist and dive industry can provide a good income to many, and if set-up properly and in a sustainable way, can be a blessing: not only for local communities, but also for the shark and ray populations of our oceans.

Much of life cycle of sharks and rays remains unknown to science, including total population numbers. Often, whale sharks are killed in areas where they tend to congregate, and the species as a whole is considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It would be good, if the local government could manage whale shark tourism and minimize the impact on the environment.]
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