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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Please don’t feed the whale sharks? Fisherman’s Town says it’s essential to prosperity.

TAN AVAN, Philippines – In pre-dawn light, Lauren de Guzman floats into the sea on her tiny wooden support to hand feed the giants that live in the water.

One of the hippos, the whale shark known as 180, swims up, its enormous mouth gliding across the calm ocean.

“Where have you been?” Monsieur de Guzman asks 180, whom he hasn’t seen in weeks, as he throws handfuls of shrimp into the water and carefully scoops some shrimp off of them. shark wreckage. “You must have gone to some distant place.”

When 180 is over with breakfast, Monsieur de Guzman looks and waits in the calm water, hoping the tourists will return today or someday.

The waters around Tan Awan, its town of about 2,000 in Cebu province, attracted over half a million tourists in 2019 looking to interact with huge and charismatic marine animals that can reach over 60 feet in length.

Whale sharks, despite their impressive size, are gentle giants. Their mouths are huge, but they are filter feeders. Their hundreds of vestigial teeth are tiny and they cannot bite.

In the days leading up to the pandemic, whale shark tourism flourished in Tan-Awan, which was a sleepy fishing community until about a decade ago, the area’s huge animals became a global attraction.

But even before the pandemic nearly halted international visits to Tan Awan and Oslob, the broader municipality surrounding it, tough questions were asked about the conflicting relationship between a declining species and a community struggling to survive.

Whale sharks migrate, but tourism-dependent residents of Tan-Awan, such as Mr. de Guzman, have retained at least some of them year-round due to the highly controversial practice of daily wildlife feeding.

Not posing a threat and often visiting coastal areas, whale sharks and humans have long been around, often to the detriment of animals.

“Their availability makes them a very suitable species for the target,” said Ariana Agustins, a marine biologist who has studied whale shark populations in the Philippines. “In terms of hunting, unfortunately, in the past; and tourism is now in the present. “

Feeding humans has changed the behavior of whale sharks. “They usually have a very varied diet,” said Ms Agustins. “They eat corals, lobster larvae, various types of zooplankton and even small fish.”

But in Tan-Awan they are fed sergestid shrimp, locally known as uyap. “This is just one type of food,” said Ms Agustins. “This is a big deviation from their natural diet.”

Regular feeding has also changed their diving behavior: these whale sharks spend more time at the surface, resulting in significantly more scars and abrasions on their bodies from boats and other floating hazards than in unsecured areas.

But reaching out to tourists for a near-guaranteed visit means that Tan-Awan residents are not willing to give up their feeding practices, despite mounting pressure to stop. Tourism money means too much: Whale shark encounters will bring about $ 3.5 million to the area in 2019.

“The whale sharks took us up,” said M. de Guzman. “They gave people jobs.”

In addition, he said, the people who feed the sharks have become closer to the animals – and, they claim, to the sharks close to them.

“They took to us. They will leave if we don’t feed them. It will hurt their feelings. They will sulk, ”says Monsieur de Guzman. “We feed them even if we run out of budget. We borrow money to feed them. “

The affection is facilitated both by the pleasant nature of the sharks and by how easily recognizable the individuals are.

Each whale shark has a unique constellation of spots that resemble stars in the night sky, which is the inspiration for its name in Madagascar, “morocintana” or “many stars.” In Javanese it is “geger lintang” or “stars on the back”.

In the past, local fishermen avoided sharks. But just over 10 years ago, one fisherman, Gerson Soriano, started playing with them in the water. The owner of a resort in the area was overwhelmed by the energetic communication and asked Mr. Soriano to lead some of his guests out on the water so they too could swim with the giants.

Mr. Soriano began to bait the whale sharks with whale sharks. Other fishermen followed suit. They formed an association of marine wardens responsible for feeding sharks and ferrying tourists to see them. Visitors posted their whale shark selfies on social media. Suddenly, the local waters were filled with visitors.

The quiet town lit up with resorts and restaurants. The younger residents stayed to work in Tan-Awan, instead of leaving for the city or abroad. M. de Guzman’s income doubled, then tripled, and he rebuilt his house. The only secondary school in the area was opened.

But procurement practices have come under fire as WWF is just one of many conservation organizations condemning the idea of ​​feeding whale sharks and urging tourists in the Philippines to instead head to Donsol, an unsecured facility, to see them.

Nearly 1,900 whale sharks have been found in the waters of the Philippines, the second largest known population in the world. Scientists call individual whales by numbers.

Globally, the whale shark population has more than halved over the past 75 years, and the decline in the Indo-Pacific region has been even faster, at 63 percent, according to statistics in 2016, they were listed as endangered.

Mark Rendon, president of the Maritime Security Service, is aware of the criticism but remains unmoved. “We know whale sharks better than they do,” he said of conservationists’ efforts to end the practice.

Mr Rendon’s much larger and more serious concern is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the absence of tourists, hospitality workers, motorcycle drivers and whale shark boaters are looking for alternative sources of income. Throughout the city, doors and windows were boarded up.

“Nightmare,” said Mr. Rendon.

As the pandemic continued, many of the whale shark overseers began to return to their former and much less lucrative pursuits of fishing and farming.

Conservationists point to the pain that Tan-Awan is now experiencing as a good reason to avoid the feeding pattern adopted here.

“In most places around the world where they are not fed, it is seasonal,” said Ms Agustins of the whale shark sightings. “So this seasonality makes it possible for a different set of income to be generated, so that the community will not be entirely dependent on just one type in case something happens.”

Pandemic or not, whale sharks keep showing up in time to feed them.

Mr. Rendon said the overseers were reaching out to various government agencies to raise money for the over 60 pounds of shrimp needed every day. “If that happens,” Mr. Redon said of the small amount of government aid, “all of this will disappear.”

In September of this year, a fisherman came to the house of Mr. Soriano and found him dead. The man known as the father of the Tan-Awan whale shark tourism boom has committed suicide.

On the day of his death, Mr. Soriano spoke to his sister Rica Joy, who was alarmed at how thin he was. The family was told that he died on an empty stomach. Like many other overseers, the money he made during the tourism boom was running low. “He was a one-day millionaire,” his sister said.

When Monsieur de Guzman goes to sea to feed the whale sharks, he often thinks of his children. Now that tourism income is low, he says, his daughter helps by sending money home from another province where she went to work as a diving instructor.

“I hand-fed my children when they were babies,” Mr. de Guzman recalled. “It makes me think that all these whale sharks are my children.”

World Nation News Desk
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