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Pacific fishermen finance protection of endangered whale sharks while reducing poverty


Jessica Nelson
11 December 2018

Oslob in the Philippines has become an international hotspot for tourists to swim and dive with whale sharks – a species protected by law yet still illegally poached and finned alive in other parts of the country.

The successful community-based dive tourism business Oslob Whale Sharks is unique: it was started and continues to be run by a group of fishermen without donor funding, though it hasn’t been without controversy.

New research released today from Southern Cross University in Australia and The Bureau of Fishery and Aquatic Resources (Region 7) in the Philippines investigates how Oslob Whale Sharks not only enabled 177 fishermen to stop fishing, but how it now finances the protection of the whale sharks and coral reefs its community’s livelihoods depend on.

The research is today published in the top tier journal Ocean & Coastal Management.

Southern Cross University PhD candidate Judi Lowe, who led the research in collaboration with Johann Tejada, said Oslob Whale Sharks was formed in 2012 in partnership with local government.

Ms Lowe said Prior to Oslob Whale Sharks, many of the fishermen couldn’t feed their families or educate their children and some had lost their palm frond homes in typhoons.

Fisherman Jesson Jumuad now leads a team of fishermen at Oslob.

“As fishermen we were earning as little as US$1.40 a day but nothing on days when the current was strong,” Mr Jumuad said.

“Sometimes in a day I didn’t have any fish to be sold but now, I can give my family good food three times a day. I built a brick house, bought a motor bike and I send my daughter to school.”

Ms Lowe said the fishermen had a connection to the whale sharks spanning generations.

“For example, each time a whale shark would bump their outrigger canoes, fishermen would lure them away with handfuls of krill to avoid entanglement in the nets.”

It was in 2011 that a tourist paid a fishermen to draw a whale shark close to shore so she could see it, and so Oslob Whale Sharks was born. Now the former fishermen paddle tourists out to watch, snorkel or dive with whale sharks, 364 days a year from 6am to 12pm. Oslob Whale Sharks is now the most successful community-based dive tourism business in the world, with more than 750,000 visitors and US$18.4m from ticket sales in five years.

“Our research found that income stays in Oslob providing livelihoods, increased food security, healthcare, education and housing for the fishermen and their community and now finances protection of the whale sharks and coral reefs their livelihoods depend on,” Ms Lowe said.

However the success of Oslob Whale Sharks has not been embraced by all. Other whale shark attractions – where sightings are seasonal, offshore, and not guaranteed – have petitioned the Philippines government to shut Oslob down, citing harm to the whale sharks from feeding. The government investigated, found the claims to be unsubstantiated and now formally supports Oslob Whale Sharks.

Research investigating the physical impact of feeding on the whale sharks from the same team, in collaboration with a highly regarded whale shark scientist, is soon to be released.