Whale shark interactions in the Philippines: To Feed or not to feed?

Tourism based on marine wildlife interaction is booming worldwide. In the Philippines, it has been gaining popularity for the past six years, particularly swimming with whale sharks. Anyone who has ‘swimming with whale sharks’ on their bucket list is certain to have the Philippines on there too. And recently, that means going to the town of Oslob in Cebu.

Chance encounter of a whale shark off the coast of Jagna, Bohol (photo by Jerome Hulin)

However, if you’re like me and other gen-Xers, the place to view marine wildlife, especially whale sharks, would be Donsol in Sorsogon. The opening of the whale shark interaction-based tourism in Donsol became welcomed news after a tumultuous few years surrounding local whale shark fisheries in the Bohol Sea in the Central Visayas. The long-practiced hunting of whale sharks in the Bohol Sea was thrown into the spotlight in the mid-1990s amidst changing perceptions and reports of declining populations of sharks, rays, whales and dolphins in other parts of the world. This led civil society groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to demand protection of such species and the closure of fisheries such as that in the Bohol Sea. Almost overnight, with a stroke of a pen, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of the Philippines passed an ordinance protecting whale sharks and manta rays. Dolphins were initially protected in 1992 while whales were protected since 1997. By the end of 1998, hunting for all large marine vertebrate species was banned.

Having been a significant source of income for a small island community of fishers in Bohol, the passing of this law became a source of much conflict, within and among communities, between government agencies and NGOs. Conflicts that caused division and resentment still evident today. Livelihoods were lost and although alternatives have been introduced, some with relative success, the days of hunting whale sharks will always come with bittersweet memories for locals.

Knowing this history is important in putting into context what is happening now in Oslob, where whale shark interaction began in 2011, much later than in Donsol. The whale shark interaction in Oslob is unique because this tourism enterprise is anchored on the practice of provisioning/feeding or baiting of whale sharks. A practice that up until 2011 was never even heard of in the Philippines. Donsol’s whale shark interactions is based on natural encounters with whale sharks. Just like other natural wildlife encounters, there is no promise or guarantee of seeing the animals. Time is spent looking for the animals out at sea on boats and patience is rewarded by chance encounters with animals that are free to stay or leave whenever they please. Photo or no photo.

Whale shark interaction in Donsol, Sorsogon (Courtesy of Juergen Freund through Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines).

In Oslob, it began with fishers who encountered whale sharks visiting their fishing grounds and thought of throwing in handfuls of small shrimps (locally called “uyap”) to attract the animals. After seeing how the “uyap” lured the animals close to their boats and made the animals hang around, they knew they struck gold. By then the popularity of Donsol had long reached international levels and it wasn’t long until Oslob was able to get social media savy tourists to spread the word of what they had that Donsol didn’t – a guarantee of seeing whale sharks.

Barely a year after this practice began, many called for the feeding to stop in 2012. But with the practice   gaining support, including from foreign photographers and foreign shark advocates, calls for closure remained unheeded. By 2013, Oslob was attracting thousands of tourists daily, with whale shark interactions running every day, year-round except on Good Friday (a Catholic holiday in the Philippines).

Oslob’s whale shark interaction area with hordes of tourists in 2014 (photo by Jom Acebes).

This of course did not go unnoticed by scientists and concerned conservation groups. Studies have been conducted to look into the potential impacts of these types of interactions on animals. Papers were published and meetings and workshops conducted, both locally and internationally. The results are clear, the practice of feeding/luring/provisioning/baiting of whale sharks in Oslob have negative impacts on the animals’ health, behavior and ecology. Being migratory species, whale sharks are known for travelling thousands of kilometers across the oceans, but the whale sharks in Oslob are staying year-round with mostly juveniles interacting with tourists daily. Changes in their migratory timing and patterns may also be affecting their reproduction.

Easy access to food is keeping them within the area. Yet the food given is not the same as they would find in the wild. Fishers have been feeding them only one to two kinds of locally-sourced small shrimps. Recently, fishers have been ‘importing’ the krill from other towns and provinces to meet the need of food stocks for the daily interactions. The quality of the krill is not ideal, as stocks are stored for days in below-average refrigeration standards prior to feeding. The excess food thrown in the surrounding waters has also lowered water quality in and around the interaction area. Decomposing food settles to the bottom, affecting turbidity and water quality which in turn affects other marine life in the area.

Through these feedings, whale sharks have been conditioned to approach and follow boats with its hoards of tourists. Years of daily feeding has habituated them, associating boats (motorized or non-motorized) with food. A whale shark named Fermin by interacting boats, caught the headlines in 2012 when it disappeared for a few days in Oslob then later re-appeared with gash wounds around its eye caused by a boat propeller. Seeing animals with propeller cuts is now the norm within the region. Habituation to boats or humans, endangers the animals since they may approach any boat expecting to be fed, get hit by the propeller and injured. They can also encounter humans who may want to cash in their fins or meat.  

As the debate grow on whether it is wrong to feed whale sharks or not, various rationale or arguments have been presented. On one hand are the Oslob fishers and tourism proponents that insist that they are simply taking advantage of the presence of the whale sharks in their waters; that feeding them ensures their continued presence and the animal no longer has to struggle to find their own food. Using the animal for tourism versus killing them is also often part of this rationale, with many fishers viewing themselves as protectors than hunters, despite whale sharks never being hunted in Oslob. The hunting of whale sharks was only practiced in the past in a few towns in Bohol, Camiguin and Misamis Oriental. On the economic side , the whale shark tourism has brought huge income to the locals.

On the other hand, there are scientists, conservationists, civil society groups and even tour operators who are advocating for a more natural approach – no feeding/provisioning/luring/baiting. They argue that swimming with whale sharks can be done responsibly, with minimal impact, if any at all, on the animals and without altering the animals’ behavior. They are asking that the feeding is stopped and whale sharks are allowed to approach boats naturally. They are promoting using the model of Donsol whale shark interactions. However, such a model means limiting the income of poorer households who depend on the daily tourism interactions to specific months during the season.

As this type of tourism practice has a million-peso price tag on it, no one in the government, local or national, is willing to address this complex issue. The practice continues. Daily. All year-round.

What many conservationists fear most is starting to happen. Fishers in other coastal towns want in on the money too. Within the past two years, there has been several reports from neighbouring coastal towns where fishers are feeding whale sharks to attract them for tourism. On 16th November 2019, a “promotional video” on whale shark interactions was produced in the town of Lila in Bohol where two men on paddle boats were throwing small fishes into the surrounding water and mouths of the whale sharks. Two to three whale sharks were swimming almost vertically, open-mouthed next to the boats as young men swam next to the animals to pose for the video. The social media post highlighting the video proudly announces that the interaction will open within the month but also indicated that this post will be deleted – a clear sign that they knew it wasn’t appropriate.  

Captured from posted “promotional video” of whale shark interaction in Lila, Bohol. Whale shark in vertical position being fed from a boat (background).

This issue can be simplified. It is not a question of whether to allow people to swim with whale sharks. It is a question of whether to feed or not to feed whale sharks – to allow their natural migratory pattern to co-exist with our livelihood needs. The choice is not between swimming with whale sharks and killing them. It is not an either or.

It has been over two decades since whale sharks were protected in the country and although there have been two incidences of whale sharks being intentionally finned or killed, the enforcement and compliance to this national law has been relatively successful. The evidence that whale sharks are returning from low numbers is undeniable. Increased sightings in the Bohol Sea alone, where they were hunted in the past, would attest to that. Do we now need to protect them from irresponsible tourism?

About the Author: Dr. Jo Marie Acebes is a Senior Museum Researcher at the Zoology Division of the National Museum of the Philippines. She is currently at the San Francisco State University Estuary & Ocean Science Center as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar. Jom began her career in research and marine conservation at WWF-Philippines as the Project Leader of the Cetacean Research and Conservation Project in 2000. She later became the Founder and Principal Investigator of a non-profit organization called BALYENA.ORG, with a mission to support the conservation of whales and dolphins and their natural habitats in the Philippines through research, education and capacity-building. Jom is also a National Geographic Explorer; member of the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force and a member of the Philippine Aquatic Red List Committee – Subcommittee on Cetaceans.

Published by Dr. Jom Acebes

Biologist, veterinarian, conservationist, marine mammal scientist; a bit of a marine environmental historian and aspiring social scientist.

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