Giving teeth to shark protection
I REMEMBER THAT MORNING CLEARLY. DIVE BUDDY Maia and I were among the first to back-roll onto Tubbataha’s coral-coated walls, descending 10m to await the rest of our team. From the blue shot in a green sea turtle. Big male, evidenced by its long, fat tail. It seemed to be in a hurry. I was getting my Gopro ready when my entire field of vision transformed into a shark. Maybe 5m away. Things slowed down and my first reaction was, “Why doesn’t this whale shark have spots?” Oh. Tiger shark. That day, I realized that diving with sea turtles or gazing at bowriding dolphins is cool – but going fin-to-fin with a shark? Sheer, primal panic and wonder. In equal amounts. Every time. Shark encounters are actually fairly rare in the Philippines, despite the country being a top dive destination and a major bastion of life in the Coral Triangle. Scientists have recorded 95 of the world’s 465 shark species here, ranging from gentle giants like whale sharks to tiny bamboo catsharks collected for the marine aquarium trade. A rare 5m great white shark even washed ashore in the northeastern Philippines in January this year, it seems the first time the species was photographed locally. Loved by few and feared by many, sharks have taken a nosedive in population due to hunting, coastal degradation and a huge reduction in the stocks of prey fish like sardines and mackerel. “To ensure the future of our oceans, we must protect all levels of the ecosystem – from primary producers to top predators,” Sally Snow, executive director of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute, explains. “Top predators like
sharks can only exist if the food chain below is thriving, but they also play a key role in maintaining the balance and biodiversity of an ecosystem. When we protect top predators, we’re also taking steps to protect the entire ecosystem.” You will be lucky to find fins through most of the Philippines. Still, there are a few notable marine sanctuaries where divers and sharks can meet. The once-sleepy town of Donsol in southern Luzon hosts hundreds of the spotted giants. Skin divers can interact with as many as 10 different sharks in three hours. Its environmental ethos sits in stark contrast to the highly-controversial town of Oslob in southern Cebu, where juvenile whale sharks are corralled and regularly fed with shrimp. This alters their natural behavior but ensures “good selfies” for tourists. Malapascua in northern Cebu is famed for its pelagic thresher sharks, which resemble graceful wraiths gliding in and out of the blue. Thresher sharks have specially-shaped, scythe-like tails used to stun prey such as squid or sardines. They regularly stop by a 24m-deep dive site called Monad Shoal to let cleaner wrasses pick their bodies clean of parasites. The Tubbataha Reefs in Palawan house the country’s most-famous dive sites, and are the country’s best-managed and productive shallow-water reef. Tubbataha is known for Shark Airport, where whitetip and grey reef sharks “take off and land” like ponderous, swaying Airbuses. Lucky divers might also see a curious hammerhead or two approaching the wall. The Philippines also has deep-sea coral reefs like Benham Bank. This is the topmost portion of the Philippine Rise, a largely unexplored, yet unprotected 24-million-hectare undersea plateau in the northeast corner of the country. In 2016, scientists dropped some Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems, and scored live video of an adult tiger shark having lunch at 45m. Catching and killing sharks inside the protected areas of the Philippines is illegal, affording sharks some security. However, only 14 species – the great white, basking, whale, oceanic whitetip, silky, plus all species of thresher, saw and hammerhead sharks – are protected nationally. The remaining 81 species are still caught for meat, medicine, plus the pet and curio trades. Dried shark jaws are still sold as smelly, grisly souvenirs – please avoid them. With a l itt l e luck, s hark c onser v at i onists i n t he country could soon have jaws. The Shark, Ray and Chimaera Conservation Act aims to protect not just the country’s 95 shark species, but all local species of shark, ray and chimaera. “The proposed act will strengthen the enforcement of laws for currently-protected species, while covering all remaining sharks, rays and chimaeras,” Save Sharks Network’s Vince Cinches notes. “Sharks are ecologically and culturally valuable but remain vulnerable to a wide range of threats,” he adds, being caught directly, or as bycatch, especially from the tuna industry. Other problems include marine debris, habitat destruction, weak law enforcement and unregulated shark tourism. Cinches encourages divers to encourage others, and avoid buying shark products such as fins, souvenirs and meat. Consumers should act with their feet. By avoiding establishments that serve such products, trade will suffer. Citizens in the Philippines can tell lawmakers that they want the law passed by signing the Shark, Ray and Chimaera Conservation Act online. The Save Sharks Network brings together environmental nonprofits like Greenpeace Philippines, Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, Save Philippine Seas and other shark-loving groups. Through your participation, we can conserve the integrity of marine ecosystems. By expanding species protection, we all aim to swim with far more than 14 species of sharks, and far more of those, when we dive in the Philippines. Environmentalist and diver Gregg Yan is behind Best Alternatives, a movement to persuade consumers and investors to switch to sustainable alternatives to wildlife products, like using mushrooms to replace shark fins in Chinese restaurants.
FINNED FINDS Whale sharks or butanding, once hunted, migrate through the Philippines, and are one of 14 species protected at least in law.