The Whale Sharks in Oslob: Giant creatures for Giant income, is it really sustainable?
After hesitating a lot because I did not want my name to be part of the registration book of tourists there, I eventually decided to stop on the road from Dumaguete to Cebu in Taw-Awan barangay (village), in Oslob. What is happening in Oslob that is bringing so many tourists?
Whale sharks have been spotted in Oslob since 1950. Fishermen did not like them because they were destroying the fishnets and fishes were afraid of them. Whale sharks are fishes measuring between 2 and 9 meters. They are inoffensive and eat plankton, so that they are called the “Gentle Giants”. A fisherman used to feed the whale sharks with baby shrimps (called “uyap”) to keep them away from his nets. He noticed that they were coming back again for food. A diver came in and put a video on youtube showing the gentle giants very close to humans. In September 2011, tourists started to come to Tan-Awan and other fishermen fed the whale sharks. In Donsol, the site for whale shark watching in the Philippines that is partly managed by the WWF, feeding is not allowed whereas in Oslob fishermen now feed the whale sharks every day from 6 am to 1pm.
Suddenly, the small barangay of Tan-Awan received up to 1000 tourists A DAY! Initially, the price was set up to 300 pesos per person to swim with the gentle giants accompanied by a fisherman and his boat. But in January 2012, the local government of Oslob decided to intervene in the fishermen’s business and in April they passed an ordinance saying that the price will now be 1000 pesos (!!!) for foreign snorkelers and 500 pesos for Filipino ones. Before this whale shark watching activity, the fishermen were earning around 300 pesos a day, now it is something between 800 and 1500 pesos. From the tourist fee, 60% goes to the fisherman, 30% to the municipality of Oslob and 10% to the Tan-Awan barangay. A real success story? This phenomenon has now become a controversy in the country.
I went there and met the president of the fishermen association, the treasurer of Tan-Awan barangay, the Tourism Officer of Oslob, marine biologists from the NGO Physalus and free-lance journalists (and whale sharks lovers) that are doing a documentary on Oslob. What I will remember from all of this is the lack of organization and transparency concerning the use of the big money they make and the potential danger from changing the whale sharks’ natural behavior.
The discussion with the Tourism Officer sometimes led to doubtful explanations, as for the increase of the price for foreigners that would be due to the fact that they are the one not respecting the rules in the water (no touching, no flash) and for the involvement of the local government only because they were worried about the whale sharks preservation. It is not a question of money then… However, with 500 to 1000 visitors per day who each brings 150 to 300 pesos to the municipality, it is a huge amount of money for such a small municipality. So no one could tell me about a specific project that was done with this money, except maybe street lights in one place. The answer from the Tourism Officer is that they are keeping this money for next year Annual Plan. Concerning Tan-Awan barangay, the treasurer told me that they bought furniture such as boll pens (it must be very technological ones…!) and increase a little bit the policemen’s salary. For me, it sounds like part of the money is going into the pocket of some people, corruption as we call it. I also asked the question of conflicts in the community, because it seems very unlikely that teachers, small businesses and government employees would not complain that they are earning far less than the fishermen, whose work is now less demanding and fluctuating than fishing. The Tourism Officer told me that they received complains but once the mayor explains the positive benefits that the community will get, people understand.
I presented you some of the issues concerning the community; now let’s talk about the whale sharks. They are migratory animals, and the simple fact that they haven’t moved away from Oslob since September last year could be problematic. They usually migrate to avoid the depletion of plankton in the area but now fishermen are getting the uyap from very far to feed the whale sharks (the price per kilogram of uyap increased from 1 to 70 pesos…). The second matter is that whale sharks are learning to approach boats to ask for food. However, as they do not make any difference between boats, they could be hurt outside the Oslob area or scare other fishermen in different places that are not used to whale sharks coming that close (in Oslob whale sharks are 50 meters from the coast). Fermin, a whale shark that was used to getting food from fishermen in Oslob, came back a few months ago with scars on its face, probably from a motor boat. Scientists fear that the behavior of the whale sharks will change with the feeding, and they could somehow become aggressive when begging for food. The major concern would be if some other places started their own feeding business.
I could talk during hours on this topic because what I saw this morning shocked me. However, in order to keep this post an article and not a book, I invite you to watch these videos, they are made by the group “Feeding the Gentle Giants: tuki chronicles”. It is really clear and interesting!
The question of the sustainability of tourism is more than ever relevant here, because of the migratory characteristic of these animals and because of the carrying capacity of the place that seems to be already met (when you see 15 people and 4 boats around one or two whale sharks, it is quite a lot…).There is no easy solution to this issue but a compromise could hopefully be found to keep the community happy with this new income and at the same time not taking any risk of changing the behavior of those wild creatures.