Oslob – The gentle giant

Author: Claudia Milea

Oslob – The gentle giant

The expedition continued to carry us to the south of Cebu Island, to Oslob, more specifically to Tanawan village. We went there for a really special meeting with the world’s biggest fish: the whale shark.

Divided into two subpopulations, the share is considered to be 75% in Indo-Pacific and 25% in Atlantic. It is not dangerous for humans. It feeds like whales: by filtering water, with plankton, fish eggs, coral eggs, but also with small calamari, fish, etc.

According to IUCN Red List, the largest specimen was reported in Taiwan, a 20m long female weighing about 42 tons.

Very little is known about reproduction, pregnant females being found mostly in the eastern Pacific, near Darwin Island in the Galapagos Archipelago and in the Bay of California. It reaches sexual maturity at the age of 30 and can live about 70-100 years.

MAJOR THREATS. They are subject to ship-related injuries, illegal fishing, and by-catch during fishing of other fish species. IUCN Red List has listed it as a species threatened with extinction.

What’s going on in Tanawan-Oslob?

Whale sharks are fed, creating a habit, being daily drawn to a delimited area close to the shore, where tens and hundreds of tourists previously trained in the information center embark, in order to spend half an hour with the giants, either by looking at them from the boat, snorkeling or diving.

How it came to that?

The fishermen discovered that whale sharks were attracted to the bait they were using, approaching their boats as they were fishing, tangling them. Thus, fishermen sought ways to remove them, including throwing stones at them. As no method was fruitful, they thought to attract whale sharks away from their fishing boats, using the same bait: a local shrimp species. The owner of a diving center noticed this fact and paid the fishermen to attract whale sharks to his clients. The news has spread with speed and so it has come in a few years for this region to be highly sought for guaranteed meetings with these rare creatures.

Is it ethical?

The Physalus Association has launched the Large Marine Vertebrates Project Philippines (LAMAVE) project to study the impact of human interaction with whale sharks, aiming at environmental preservation and awareness of Oslob’s unhealthy practice. The goal is to develop a sustainable management plan for tourism generated by whale sharks in the Philippines.

The main concern is that sharks being fed, their migratory rhythm and probably the reproduction process is disturbed. Another concern is the risk that whale sharks are being taught to approach boats to be fed, they will also make it to motor boats, being very exposed to the risk of injury. At Oslob only boats without engine are used to avoid hurting them. Also, the voluntary or involuntary touch of specimens, either by tourists or by those who feed them, can cause skin problems. Since the goal of Oslob is not to feed them effectively but to attract them, another problem is that they are insufficiently  nourished, with the same diet that is very little varied from that which they would benefit from, if they would respect their natural migratory course .

And yet?…

In the 1980s, whale shark fishing was very common in the Philippines, primarily for shark fin soup, as food for locals or sold on small sums to reach Asian Asian markets.

Although the law protecting sharks has entered into force in 1998 in the Philippines, statistics show that poaching goes unhindered to this day in areas less trafficked by tourists. An article published by Nat Geo in 2014 shows some daunting figures: about 600 whale sharks are processed annually in a plant in Southeast China, as the world population is thought to be at the level of a few thousand.

According to the IUCN Red List, the species is facing a major risk of extinction. In some areas of the Indo-Pacific, there has been a decline in the species, up to 92%. Worldwide, it is estimated that about 50% of the whale population has disappeared.

While poaching is still being practiced in some parts of the world, from Mexico to the Asian islands, whale-shark tourism provides more and more gains, some practices being harmful to the species. We do not encourage practices like those in Oslob, and the WEPA expedition was a documentary one.

There are captive whale sharks in aquariums around the world: China, Japan, Taiwan, the United States, United Arab Emirates, but many are known to die from contention and are quickly replaced by new specimens. The captured shark in the Atlantic Hotel – Dubai Aquarium was released in 2010.

And yet where whale sharks are fed instead of being killed couldn’t it be considered a model for locals to stop them from hunting this species?

We will let you judge this answer yourself.

Although no one knows exactly, it may be that the whale sharks fed in Oslob have the chance to reach maturity, multiply and ensure the continuity of the species. Moreover, they only come in the morning to be fed and then leave as they please, and specimens can even be seen at neighboring islands, so they probably have the chance to feed on during the day and night.

The fact that a multitude of people can see whale sharks in their natural environment may be a factor of awareness, especially for young Asian populations, to refuse to consume shark fin soup.

In an ideal world, we should enjoy the abundance of species, not to question how indigenous peoples can be convinced not to consume creatures already threatened with extinction, but unfortunately we are in a position to use a less healthy practice to create a poor model for species conservation.

Images Gallery HERE

Article sources: Physalus, IUCN Red List, National Geographic, Wikipedia