Whale shark feeding is an ecological trap! Free the Whale Sharks in Bohol!
[There's a new tourism attraction in Lila, Bohol that's harmful to the whale sharks.]
We, a coalition composed of Bol-anon environmental advocates, multi-sectoral non-government and civil society organizations, faith-based groups and concerned citizens, would like to express our deep concern and strong opposition to the sanctioning of the opening and operation of the Taug whale shark tourism. Apart from its many apparent legal shortcomings, this venture at its current form is exploitative and unethical. It is incongruent with Bohol’s environmental policy of ensuring the sustainable utilization, management, protection, and conservation of its rich ridge-to-reef natural biodiversity – and as fully espoused by the current provincial administration’s intersectional key programs of: caring for the weak, Bohol cultural renaissance, tourism expansion, while ensuring adherence to environmental conservation and sustainability principles.
A new tourism attraction, the “Taug Whale Shark Watching and Snorkeling” in Barangay Taug in the municipality of Lila, Bohol, which has accordingly begun soft operations in late November or early December, is set to be launched in the third week of December 2019. As recounted by early guests, the operation collects an individual fee of P500 for locals and P1,000 for non-local tourists, and features watching, close interaction via snorkeling, and the feeding of the whale sharks (locally known as balilan). Actual photos and videos of these have been shared online by early tourists, a tour operator and individuals promoting the site.
This offering is reportedly an initiative of a private investor with the support of the barangay, and possibly the partnership of the municipal government. It has been gathered that a Memorandum of Agreement is set to be signed by the Mayor, who has already been authorized by the Sangguniang Bayan (Municipal Council) with an approved resolution to enter into said contract with the project proponent.
Pending formal inking of the agreement with the municipality, it would appear that its operation is still without proper local permits, not to mention, consideration of relevant marina regulations, tourism conventions, environmental and animal welfare laws affecting protected and endangered marine wildlife.
Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are protected marine wildlife governed by local and international protection laws. They are listed in both the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna under Appendix II (CITES) and the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) The Philippines, as a champion in whale shark conservation, has committed to ensuring responsible tourism practices that will benefit and not harm the species.
Feeding of wildlife is strictly prohibited in well-managed protected areas. The practice of feeding whale sharks and its consequences should not be encouraged and replicated. In a country where rules and regulations are difficult to implement, we do not want Bohol to be another example of what not to do and what not to be.
Section 11 of Republic Act 8550, otherwise known as the 1998 Philippine Fisheries Code underlined among others, the protection of rare, threatened and endangered species in Section 11. Section 56 of the same provision further spelled out the law for non-obstruction to defined migration paths of migratory species. While Section 105 provided for the penalties in violation thereof. As of 2016, whale sharks are an endangered species according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
Republic Act 9147 furthermore provided for the conservation and protection of wildlife resources and their habitats. It sealed the responsibility of the local government unit and dedicated national agencies to implement and monitor related policies thereof.
Whale sharks swim and move widely across the Philippine waters year-round, following seasonal food pulse, moving further across between the waters in the region, as documented in Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and allowing for further nutrient exchange. Restricting their movements by creating an “ecological trap” through artificial provisioning or the act of feeding and luring alters their ecological roles and ecological needs. Monitoring of whale sharks in Donsol, Sorsogon and Sulu Sea through satellite tagging also shows that whale sharks spend more time in deep waters, with one of the deepest dives at over 1,400m recorded in the Bohol Sea. If the whale sharks do not move to their deep habitats or the next feeding area, which will provide the necessary nutrition to grow and develop and/or could possibly be mating and pupping grounds, they may be unable to perform their ecological roles in these ecosystems. As an endangered species, whale sharks require all the opportunities for reproduction.
Conditioning whale sharks to approach boats can also make them more susceptible to injuries and poaching. The whale sharks’ positive association with boats may cause negative impacts when they swim to other areas where there are no guidelines and trained personnel for the conduct and monitoring of human interactions, as has been reported in other countries.
Globally, businesses such as AirBnB, Instagram, and TripAdvisor have developed policies and regulations on animal welfare. Bohol, a leading tourism destination in the Philippines, should be at the forefront of sustainability. The feeding of whale sharks will impact Bohol as a key tourism destination, as the global importance of ensuring animal welfare in tourism is taking the center stage.
Bohol and, we, the Bol-anons, must remain true to and continually pursue our eco-cultural identity and ideals. The feeding of the whale sharks in Brgy. Taug, Lila, Bohol and the illegal operation of the whale shark interaction tourism must be immediately suspended. Let us let the whale sharks swim freely in Bohol and elsewhere.