Donsol Whale Shark Research and Ecotourism Sustainability Program

Geographical location:

Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Philippines

Whale shark (Rhincodon typus)
© Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon

Summary

Whale sharks are by far the world’s largest living fish. These amazing fish reach in excess of 14m in length and weigh up to 12 tonnes. The whale shark is a migratory fish but has been subject to overfishing and is considered vulnerable.
This project aims to build on the ecotourism work which WWF initiated in Donsol in 1999 and ensure it is sustainable longer term for the benefit of both whale shark populations and the local community.

Background

In Donsol, which is in the Sorsogon province of the Philippines, aggregations of whale sharks appear during the period from January to July with the highest number of sightings in the months March to April.

With the discovery of this phenomenon, WWF Philippines facilitated the development of an ecotourism whale shark program in 1999. The program started with about 200 tourists, but this industry has mushroomed to about 20,000 paying tourists in the 2009 season. This dramatic increase is attributed to the almost guaranteed sightings during peak months, a well-managed community-based ecotourism program that serves visitors, as well as the density and frequency of sightings that which make Donsol the most significant whale shark interaction site in the world.

In May 2009, during photo identification studies, WWF documented 278 whale sharks individuals within the waters of Donsol. Recent satellite tagging studies also show that whale sharks frequenting the Donsol waters are spending considerable time in the other portions of the Ticao Pass, including that of the Monreal, prior to their long term migration journey.

By 2005 the whale shark ecotourism industry in Donsol made a contribution of Php 35m pesos or roughly US$ 700,000 to the national economy when tourist numbers had reached about 7,500. Approximately 35% of this, or US$ 145,000, was retained by the local economy of Donsol. Of this about $26,000 was in the form of direct taxes such as registration fees paid by tourists participating in the interaction activities. That means that around 100 families directly involved in whale shark interactions benefited from an increased averaged income of $50 per month monthly during the season. This is a very significant sum given that the daily wage for the area is less than $5 a day. During the 2009 season more than 17,000 tourists visited Donsol to interact with the whale sharks.

The popularity of Donsol as a major destination for whale shark needs to be handled with care to ensure the sustainability of the whale shark interaction activities. The unprecedented increase in tourists wishing to experience an encounter with the whale sharks brings with it much risk and potential danger to these gentle giants.

The increase in tourist numbers has given rise to a parallel increase of non-compliance to the existing interaction guidelines. A substantial number of concerned visitors have reported that regulations have not been implemented, thereby posing a threat to the whale shark populations.

Another current issue that needs to be addressed is the management of the habitat of the whale sharks and the fishery that is aligned with it. As per the initial assessment on the fishery of Donsol waters in 2005, the area is overfished by about 30% and is mainly attributed to the intrusion of commercial fishing vessels at the expense of the legitimate artisanal fishers of Donsol. The gears used by these vessels could pose a direct threat to the whale sharks in terms of possible indirect takes as bycatch.

Aligned to the fisheries management plan is the need to assess and the implementation of the marine protected areas that was established a few years ago. The assessment will provide the needed information to identify possible gaps and support that could be provided to make it functional and contribute to the overall plan of coastal management in the area.

Objectives

Ticao Pass in Donsol is characterized by rich biodiversity and abundant mega-fauna that contribute to stable marine ecosystems. This project aims to ensure these ecosystems are sustained to provide sustainable economic opportunities to the fishing communities in the area through an ecosystems based management approach.

Specific objectives include:

- Create a network of MPAs in the Coral Triangle that protect the migration routes, feeding sites and breeding sites of sea turtles, manta rays, and whale sharks.

- Sufficient biological information on the status of the population, migratory behaviour, life-history and habitats of the feeding aggregations of whale sharks in Donsol are determined.

- Community ecotourism program is effectively managed and appropriate measures undertaken to minimize if not eradicate negative impacts to habitats and species to sustain economic benefits of local communities.

- Coastal resources and fisheries management program assessed and supported to compliment conservation and management of whale sharks in the area.

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