It’s of­fi­cial: ‘Bu­tand­ing’ an en­dan­gered species

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - FRONT PAGE - By Alya B. Honasan

THERE’S bad news for the whale shark ( Rhin­codon ty­pus), an iconic ma­rine an­i­mal fre­quently spot­ted in Philip­pine wa­ters and known lo­cally as bu­tand­ing.

Now listed as “en­dan­gered” on the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN) Red List of Threat­ened Species, this gen­tle gi­ant has slipped one step closer to ex­tinc­tion, with the whale shark fish­eries in south­ern China seen as a def­i­nite prob­lem.

As a mi­gra­tory species, whale sharks swim into south- ern China, site of sev­eral ac­tive whale shark fish­eries, “which can re­ally af­fect the re­gional pop­u­la­tion (of this species),” said Dr. Si­mon Pierce of Ma­rine Megafauna Foun­da­tion who is also a mem­ber of the IUCN Shark Spe­cial­ist Group.

The IUCN, the world’s largest en­vi­ron­men­tal net­work, counts some 1,300 mem­bers and is the main author­ity on global species con­ser­va­tion. Its Red List, founded in 1964, is the most com­pre­hen­sive and rec­og­nized list­ing of the sta­tus of species in the world.

IUCN Red List cat­e­gories

range from Least Con­cern (LU), mean­ing the species is still wide­spread and abun­dant, to Ex­tinct (E), mean­ing there are no known in­di­vid­u­als still ex­ist­ing, whether in the wild or in cap­tiv­ity.

At high risk

The whale shark was pre­vi­ously clas­si­fied as Vul­ner­a­ble (VU), mean­ing the species was at high risk of dan­ger in the wild. The next level, En­dan­gered (EN), kicks this sta­tus up to a high risk of ex­tinc­tion. Only two more clas­si­fi­ca­tions —Crit­i­cally En­dan­gered (CR) and Ex­tinct in the Wild (EW) —keep the bu­tand­ing from be­ing con­sid­ered un­der threat of ex­tinc­tion.

In a video re­leased by the Large Ma­rine Ver­te­brates Re­search In­sti­tute Philip­pines (La­mave), a Bo­hol-based re­search in­sti­tute that has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing and satel­lite-tag­ging whale sharks since 2012, Pierce said the agency reached this con­clu­sion fol­low­ing its most re­cent whale shark as­sess­ment con­ducted af­ter 10 years.

“Pre­vi­ously (whale sharks) were Vul­ner­a­ble, which sug­gests they had more than a 30per­cent de­cline over­all,” Pierce said. “We’ve just up­graded their list­ing to En­dan­gered, which means the pop­u­la­tion has prob­a­bly halved over the last few years.”

He added: “We have been tag­ging in var­i­ous places, and the (whale shark) pop­u­la­tion in this ar­chi­pel­ago is re­ally strongly con­nected and quite likely swim­ming into in­ter­na­tional wa­ters,” in­clud­ing those of south­ern China. This site of sev­eral ac­tive whale shark fish­eries “can re­ally af­fect (the) re­gional pop­u­la­tion (of this species),” Pierce said.

“(La­mave’s) re­searchers have matched sharks be­tween var­i­ous is­lands within the coun­try, but also as far as Tai­wan,” said its me­dia direc­tor, Sally Snow.

“In 2013, a shark en­coun­tered by our team in South­ern Leyte was matched with a pho­to­graph of a shark pre­vi­ously seen in Tai­wan, a min­i­mum jour­ney of 1,600 kilo­me­ters. (While) sharks have been mov­ing be­tween Philip­pine is­lands, what we are most con­cerned about is whether the sharks are mov­ing into the South China Sea—an area where they are at risk.”

Snow, who re­gards the whale shark as a Philip­pine icon (“We see it daily on the P100 bill”), said “it is dev­as­tat­ing to find out that one of the main il­le­gal fish­ing grounds is right next door. If whale sharks are mov­ing from the Philip­pines and into these un­pro­tected wa­ters, then we will need to work to­gether to­ward in­ter­na­tional pro­tec­tion.”

La­mave re­searcher Gon­zalo Araujo said the satel­lite tags can tell whether the whale sharks are re­sid­ing here or are mov­ing else­where. “Were they headed to­ward the south of China? If they are vis­it­ing or trav­el­ing through this area, they’re at very high risk.”

In May 2016, a pho­to­graph of a whale shark caught, hung up and slaugh­tered in Be­hai in China’s Guangxi Prov­ince went vi­ral.

“It’s a real shame that (these ma­rine an­i­mals) have been threat­ened by our ac­tiv­i­ties,” Pierce said. He rec­om­mends swim­ming with them to ex­pe­ri­ence the an­i­mals first­hand, and to get in­volved in their con­ser­va­tion. “We can also look at other threats like un­sus­tain­able seafood fish­eries and make bet­ter con­sump­tion choices,” he added.

Whale sharks, which can grow up to 20 me­ters in length and feed only on mi­cro­scopic plank­ton and small fish—are reg­u­larly sighted in the Philip­pines.

Rev­enue source

In 1997, divers in Don­sol, Sor­so­gon, dis­cov­ered that the world’s big­gest fish had been fre­quent­ing Don­sol Bay to feed at cer­tain times of the year. Through the ef­forts of the Depart­ment of Tourism and ma­rine con­ser­va­tion group World­wide Fund for Na­ture-Philip­pines, whale shark in­ter­ac­tion was mon­i­tored and sys­tem- atized, en­sur­ing the pro­tec­tion of these an­i­mals and cre­at­ing a ma­jor new rev­enue source for the mu­nic­i­pal­ity.

Time Mag­a­zine called the Don­sol ex­pe­ri­ence the “Best An­i­mal En­counter in Asia” in 2004.

In re­cent years, Os­lob in Cebu has also be­come a div­ing des­ti­na­tion for whale shark watch­ers, al­though en­vi­ron­men­tal groups ques­tion the sound­ness of lo­cal prac­tices, as fish­er­men feed the whale sharks to en­sure their pres­ence. The an­i­mal, eas­ily rec­og­niz­able be­cause of its spot­ted ap­pear­ance—dis­tinct pat­terns have been used by sci­en­tists to iden­tify in­di­vid­ual whale sharks—has also been fre­quently seen in Tub­bataha, the premier Philip­pine scuba-div­ing des­ti­na­tion in the Sulu Sea, 150 km from Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

In 1998, in the wake of the Don­sol phe­nom­e­non, then Pres­i­dent Fidel V. Ramos ap­proved a na­tional law, the Fish­eries Ad­min­is­tra­tive Or­der No. 193, which banned “the tak­ing or catch­ing, sell­ing, pur­chas­ing and pos­sess­ing, trans­port­ing and ex­port­ing of whale sharks and manta rays.” The rul­ing made the Philip­pines the first South­east Asian coun­try to pass a na­tional law pro­tect­ing the an­i­mal.

STEVE DE NEEF/CON­TRIB­U­TOR

GAME OF TAG Large Ma­rine Ver­te­brates Re­search In­sti­tute Philip­pines re­searcher Gon­zalo Araujo tags a whale shark in Tub­bataha Reefs Nat­u­ral Park in this file photo taken in 2015.

GEN­TLE GI­ANTS Mi­gra­tory whale sharks, which can grow to 20 me­ters long but feed only on plank­ton and small fish, have been de­clared en­dan­gered by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture.

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