(The full & original version of this appeal by Elson Aca can be found at http://on.fb.me/NrEgt9)
For almost a year now, Oslob (Cebu) has been intentionally feeding whale sharks in shallow waters to keep them within a certain area where tourists can interact with them. Since December 2011, when it became so popular through networking sites, scientists became alarmed at the impending effects of the practice on the welfare of the whale sharks. Several meetings with stakeholders were held regarding the situation but most of the meetings would mostly focus on the tourism side and not on the whale sharks. The scientists studying whale sharks in the Philippines are concerned about the possible changes in behavior of those sharks that are now accustomed to feeding. Whale sharks in Oslob now have head scratches and scrapes from bumping into feeder boats. In addition, they have been observed seemingly associating bubbles from divers and snorkelers as food. While this behavior is already accepted and understandable already by the fishermen of Oslob, it might pose a different situation once these migratory whale sharks move outside of Oslob.
FERMIN, or shark P-382 (http://www.whaleshark.org/individuals.jsp?langCode=en&number=P-382), is one of the “regulars” being fed in the area and was first photo-identified as early as October 2011. Physalus, an Italian NGO working in the Bohol Sea, started their research last March 2012 and is continually gathering data regarding the presence and behavior of these sharks. As suspected, worst than scratches and scrapes happen to whale sharks. Fermin was not seen for three (3) days from July 17 to 19 and re-sighted on July 20 with a number of propeller scars on its head, almost damaging the left eye (see photos). Although whale sharks have been documented with different propeller scars in almost all parts of their body, so far none have been documented with injuries on the head/face. Meaning, those previous cases were really accidental in nature as they proceed with their natural behavior of going up the surface to feed, oblivious to boats that may run over them. But the case of Fermin, the scar is a different case, and this is due to the change of behavior caused by feeding. The most logical explanation would be that Fermin went on to feed in an area unfamiliar with Oslob’s feeding practices. Regular Oslob whale sharks’ usual approach of bumping the boat from behind might be seen as an aggressive behavior by other fishermen, causing them to open their motors and leave, hence the propeller scars on the head. What is worrisome is that it might not only happen to Fermin. From the 3 individuals that are regulars in December, there are already ten (10) individuals seen almost every day in Oslob as reported by Physalus. Should we still wait for that to happen to other whale sharks as well?
Whale sharks are vulnerable species as assessed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and is listed in both Appendix II ( of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) and CMS (Convention of Migratory Species). It initially was only the mandate of DA-BFAR, but now DENR has also been included through Administrative Order 282 (2010), which intensifies the protection of whale sharks in Philippine waters.
Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 (RA 8550) and the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act (RA 9147) are also cited in this situation. The establishment of whale shark tourism in Oslob, Cebu clearly violates these laws. RA 8550 Section 11 states that the DA shall take conservation and rehabilitation measures for rare, threatened, and endangered species for which, by CITES' definition, includes whale sharks. In addition, Sections 12 and 13 state that concerned entities who intend to undertake activities or projects which will affect the quality of the environment shall be required to prepare a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to undertaking such developmental activity for which DENR will review and evaluate before issuing an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC). No EIS was created nor an ECC issued for the establishment of whale shark tourism in Oslob, Cebu. Furthermore, Section 86 states that no person shall exploit fish or any fishery species or engage in any fishery activity in Philippine waters without a license, lease, or permit. According to the Wildlife Act (RA 9147) Section 2, it is the policy of the State to conserve the country’s wildlife resources and their habitats for sustainability by conserving and protecting wildlife species and their habitats to promote ecological balance and enhance biological diversity in accordance to the Philippine commitment to international conventions. Additionally, Section 27 states that it shall be unlawful for any person to willfully and knowingly exploit wildlife resources and their habitats. Feeding of whale sharks for economic purposes is clearly exploitation of nature and not promotion of ecological balance. If there exists a permit, where was the assessment done regarding these activities?
Moreover, the Philippines is a signatory of the 1992 Earth Summit, which ratified the RIO Declaration on Environment and Development. The precautionary principle (Principle 15) states that in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities, where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. The precautionary principle has been invoked before the International Court of Justice (i.e Europe, ITLOS and Australia). Clearly, the whale shark situation in Oslob can be applied to this.
It is for these reason that environmentalists would like your offices to work together on this and stop the feeding practice immediately, not only in Oslob but in other parts of the Philippines that are planning to do the same. It is recommended, as stipulated in the law, that EIS and ECC should be acquired before such activity be undertaken. Also, as a precautionary principle, it is the responsibility of an activity proponent to establish that the proposed activity will not (or is very unlikely to) result in significant harm.
For clarification, we are not against a swim-with-the-whale shark tourism, yet if offered, we encourage that it should be done sustainably without disturbing the presence of the whale sharks. They could still offer swim-with-whale shark tourism, just like in the established tourism in Donsol (Sorsogon), where they do not feed them but their regulation compliance is another issue on hand.
We have our laws, data has been gathered, and the concerned agencies' responsibilities have been laid out. Please enforce the law and create a chance for the next generation to see these creatures behaving naturally in their environment. We encourage your offices to do something now while the damage to whale sharks (and the ecosystem it is part of) has been so far minimal. As the saying goes “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”. Let’s employ the precautionary principle at this point; we have seen already some effects and we would not want to exert more effort in trying to correct this in the future, and let the next generation bear the burden of what their ancestors did wrongly.
We are hoping for your consideration of our appeal and looking forward to your immediate action on this matter. Rest assured that we will keep vigilant on any update on this matter.