To Feed or Not to Feed?

Asian Geographic - - Environment - Text Aaron “Ber­tie” Gekoski/ Scubazoo


awhale­sharkinthe way­ofmy­whale­shark. That’s not a thought one has of­ten in one’s life­time. But here I am, off the coast of re­mote In­done­sian Bor­neo, pho­tograph­ing the world’s largest fish, when an­other one comes bar­relling through, spoil­ing my photo and nearly caus­ing me to drop my (in­cred­i­bly pricey) un­der­wa­ter cam­era and light­ing set up.

I steady my­self and get back to the mat­ter at hand of tak­ing a split-level shot of a rather sur­real scene: a whale shark – hang­ing ver­ti­cally in the wa­ter col­umn – hav­ing bait poured into its mouth by fish­er­men off the side of a float­ing plat­form, known as a bagan.

On and be­neath the sur­face, all par­ties ap­pear to be hav­ing (ahem) a whale of a time; four gi­gan­tic sharks are get­ting a good feed, the fish­er­men are mak­ing some money, and we’re gath­er­ing top-drawer im­agery for our

new se­ries, In­done­si­afrombe­low. It’s a win-win-win sit­u­a­tion. Right?

If only it were that sim­ple. Whether or not whale sharks should be handfed for tourism is a highly de­bated sub­ject amongst sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion­ists. Some view it as in­te­gral to the sharks’ sur­vival. Oth­ers want the feed­ing to stop, claim­ing it re­sults in dis­fig­ured, overfed, lazy sharks that will strug­gle to re­pro­duce.

Let’s start with the pros. Glob­ally, whale shark tourism is val­ued in ex­cess of USD50 mil­lion per an­num, with the feed­ing hot spots be­ing Os­lob in the Philip­pines, and Gorontalo and Cen­der­awasih in In­done­sia. As a re­sult of the industry, jobs are cre­ated, lodg­ing and restau­rants spring up, and in­fra­struc­ture is im­proved.

Dr Mark Meekan, Prin­ci­pal Re­search Sci­en­tist at the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Ma­rine Science, be­lieves the im­pact on the peo­ple of Os­lob – per­haps the best­known shark-feed­ing des­ti­na­tion – has been over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive. “The industry has changed the fish­er­men’s lives for the bet­ter here. They’re eat­ing three meals a day and can af­ford to send their chil­dren to school,” he says.

It’s not just the com­mu­nity that ben­e­fits. In an era of di­min­ish­ing ma­rine re­sources, near-guar­an­teed whale shark sight­ings are a huge draw for tourists. They leave hav­ing had in­ti­mate en­coun­ters with gi­gan­tic an­i­mals. The pho­tos they post on so­cial me­dia help to dis­pel myths that sharks are blood­thirsty man-eaters: Iswamwitha10-me­tre­sharkand sur­vived!here’sa­selfi­eto­proveit…

Whale sharks could do with all the pos­i­tive PR and help they can get right now. On the high seas, they are the vic­tims of by-catch, caught in nets large enough to en­snare a dozen Boe­ing 747s. Then, there’s the value of their fins, which can com­mand high prices as dis­play items in Hong Kong. Due to these threats, last year the whale sharks’ con­ser­va­tion sta­tus was up­graded from “vul­ner­a­ble” to “en­dan­gered” on the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species.

Whale sharks are en­dan­gered be­cause of us; their pop­u­la­tions world­wide have more than halved be­cause of us. There­fore, it’s rea­son­able to as­sume that hu­mans can pro­vide the so­lu­tions.

Stud­ies of 158 whale sharks in Os­lob by LAMAVE be­tween 2012 and 2013 high­lighted that res­i­dency time for hand-fed whale sharks was 44.9 days, compared to 22.4 for non-pro­vi­sioned in­di­vid­u­als. Twelve in­di­vid­u­als were seen on at least 50 per­cent of ob­ser­va­tion days. The pa­per con­cludes: “Ex­tended res­i­dency and dif­fer­ences in lagged iden­ti­fi­ca­tion rates sug­gest be­havioural mod­i­fi­ca­tion on pro­vi­sioned in­di­vid­u­als, un­der­ly­ing the ne­ces­sity for proper man­age­ment of this tourism ac­tiv­ity.”

What’s clear is that feed­ing makes the sharks stay in one place longer. What’s not clear is the im­pact this has on the sharks. For Dr Meekan, hav­ing “res­i­dent” sharks isn’t a prob­lem. “Any­way, even if some sharks are lost to the pop­u­la­tion for­ever, that would be a small price to pay for the con­ser­va­tion of the en­tire species,” he says, whilst re­fer­ring to these sharks as “global am­bas­sadors”.

Fur­ther re­search of this “eco­tourist” ac­tiv­ity is cur­rently un­der­way in Cen­der­awasih Bay, where dozens of sharks have been de­ployed with cus­tom-made satel­lite tags. Ev­ery day, sci­en­tists are gath­er­ing vi­tal in­sights into the lives of these mys­te­ri­ous an­i­mals. Once we un­der­stand them, man­age­ment strate­gies can be put in place to en­sure all par­ties ben­e­fit: the com­mu­nity, tourists, and sharks.

“An­i­mal health and life his­tory data col­lected via this project will sup­port

AARON “BER­TIE” GEKOSKI is an environmental pho­to­jour­nal­ist and pre­sen­ter of shows on Whale shark feed­ing in Der­awan will be fea­tured in the up­com­ing se­ries, In­done­si­afrombe­low.

JA­SON ISLEY trained as an un­der­wa­ter cam­era­man in Aus­tralia be­fore moving to Bor­neo, where he co-founded Scubazoo. He has filmed and pho­tographed all over the world, pro­duc­ing con­tent for Dis­ney IMAX and BBC Se­ries. He has also pub­lished his work in sev­eral books un­der the Scubazoo brand.

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