EYES ON THE PRIZE

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story and photography by Thomas Haider

Un­in­hib­ited feed­ing by whale sharks at fish­ing plat­forms off the coast of Pa­pua prov­ince has created the ideal op­por­tu­nity to get up close to one of the great won­ders of the ocean.

Un­in­hib­ited feed­ing by whale sharks at fish­ing plat­forms off the coast of Pa­pua prov­ince has created the ideal op­por­tu­nity to get up close to one of the great won­ders of the ocean.

THE FISH­ER­MEN OF CEN­DER­AWASIH Bay, on the north coast of western New Guinea, spend much of their lives on float­ing bam­boo plat­forms called bagans. Among their quarry are tiny ikan puri, an­chovies, net­ted by the ton and strung onto lines to catch more lu­cra­tive fare such as bonito. But a net bulging with th­ese tiny fish also at­tracts whale sharks, and this is now pro­vid­ing the fish­er­men with an un­ex­pected source of bounty – eco­tourism. In early 2006, ex­pe­di­tions led by Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional (CI) and Wwf-indonesia in Cen­der­awasih Bay re­vealed that the lift-net fish­ers op­er­at­ing in the bay had daily en­coun­ters with whale sharks. Rais­ing their nets in the morn­ing, they bait their lines with some of the an­chovies and leave the rest in the net, hanging just be­neath the plat­form. Whale sharks have learned to suck th­ese small fish from the nets mak­ing Cen­der­awasih the first place in the world where such be­hav­iour has been doc­u­mented. The fish­er­men also feed them buck­et­loads of an­chovies di­rectly. Some say they do this be­cause the sharks rep­re­sent an­ces­tors; oth­ers more prag­mat­i­cally ex­plain that if the whale sharks con­gre­gate around their bagans, that at­tracts skip­jack tuna, span­ish mack­erel and sail­fish which the fish­ers catch on han­d­lines. Ei­ther way, to­day the whale sharks draw divers and snorkellers from around the world, ea­ger for the near-guar­an­teed chance to see groups of them up close, jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion around the nets. All vis­i­tors con­trib­ute a fee to the Cen­der­awasih vil­lage fund, which is then di­vided be­tween the clos­est com­mu­ni­ties, the bagan fish­er­men, the park au­thor­ity who mon­i­tor and pro­tect whale sharks, and Nabire District, in the form of tax­a­tion. A writ­ten code of con­duct gov­erns the ar­range­ment, dic­tat­ing even how the money is paid, with all par­ties present so as to dis­cour­age jeal­ousy within the host com­mu­nity. It also ad­vises on in­ter­ac­tion with whale sharks in the wa­ter, ask­ing tourism op­er­a­tors to tell their guests not to touch the an­i­mals. Still more needs to be done to en­sure the pro­tec­tion of the sharks, which are listed as En­dan­gered on the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature (IUCN) Red List. In 2002 the bay be­came Indonesia’s largest ma­rine park, but like many such parks around the re­gion, mon­i­tor­ing and pro­tec­tion has been spo­radic. Now Cen­der­awasih Bay Na­tional Park is work­ing with WWF Indonesia to es­tab­lish a whale shark sanc­tu­ary, so they can con­tinue to thrive.

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