The scars sustained by Fermin, a juvenile male whale shark who fed off the food given by boaters plying the waters off Oslob and Moalboal towns, resulted to finger-pointing and denials among municipal officials over the weekend.
Moalboal Mayor Inocentes Cabaron said Oslob should stop their whale shark interaction programs if they are really serious in sparing whale sharks like Fermin from further injuries.
“If they really think it is detrimental for the whale sharks then it should be stopped. Oslob should take the lead before the others because the law should apply to all,” Cabaron told Cebu Daily News.
In response, Oslob Mayor Ronald Guaren said their town shouldn’t be blamed for what happened to “Fermin” since the whale sharks that frequent their waters are safe.
“We can assure you that the whale sharks here are very well protected,” Guaren said.
Fermin, whom marine researchers noted had been absent for the past three days this month, resurfaced with 11 S-shaped cuts on his face.
The marine creature also sustained wounded left eye which researchers believe was caused by contact with a boat’s propeller blades.
Like other whale sharks, Fermin follows the fisherfolk who dump krill in the water.
This practice allows tourists like those in Oslob town to interact with Fermin and the whale sharks, considered as the world’s biggest fish species.
Fermin’s scarred face appeared in a blog of the Italian-based research group Physalus.
The discovery spurred an online petition urging the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Agriculture to stop Oslob and other Cebu towns whose waters were frequented by the whale sharks from feeding them.
The whale-shark feeding established Oslob as a new whale shark watching capital of the Philippines, and is being duplicated in the western town of Moalboal.
Regional Director Fernando Quililan of the Environmental Management Bureau in Central Visayas said they didn’t receive any application for environmental certificate compliance (ECC) for the whale-shark watching activities.
Unlike resorts, whale-shark watching doesn’t need an ECC, said DENR-7 spokesman Eddie Llamedo. Still, Quililan said they would review their records on this.
But Republic Act 8550 or the Philippine Fisheries Code states a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) should be submitted to the DENR for review and evaluation prior to implementing activities involving marine life.
Filipino researcher Elson Aca of World Wildlife Fund for Nature Philippines (WWF-Phils) said the Oslob municipal government failed to submit these requirements before starting their whale shark tourism program.
As a result, Aca said Oslob’s whale shark tourism program violated both the Fisheries Code and the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act (RA 9147).
Physalus director Alessandro Ponzo said the danger to whale sharks like Fermin isn’t in Oslob.
“It is the learning that they get in Oslob that is dangerous…when the creatures leave Oslob, they get wounded by boat propellers,” he said.
Ponzo reiterated the danger of feeding the whale sharks, saying it will disrupt their behavior and discourage them from migrating.
“They’re getting used to people which is dangerous because we are predators to them,” he said.
The group Physalus has been monitoring Oslob’s waters since March this year.
They said the whale sharks seemed to associate bubbles caused by divers, snorkelers and propeller blades with food.
Fermin got at least 11 parallel scars from the left side of his mouth running past his left eye, said Physalus.
Fermin is registered in the database of whaleshark.org and and goes by photo identification P-382.
Fermin was one of the first whale sharks documented by Aca in Dec. 2011 and the first to incur serious injuries due to whale-shark feeding.
Aca initiated an Facebook petition to stop whale shark feeding in Oslob and across the country.
Moalboal town in southwest Cebu proposed an ordinance that encourages whale shark feeding for their tourism gains.
But the proposed law didn’t push through after the whale sharks failed to surface in their waters.
Cabaron said Oslob should stop their whale shark interaction programs so it will not be replicated in other areas.
But Guaren said Oslob’s whale watching activity had provided adequate livelihood to their fisherfolk.
The town gets a 30 percent share of the income from the whale shark watching activity.
Guaren said a large cut of the budget goes to the protection of the whale sharks, including an education campaign for the tourists.
“We never really feed the whale sharks just to let them stay in our area. It has been established years ago that whale sharks frequent our area because Oslob is abundant with plankton,” Guaren said.
“We are just feeding them so that they will appear for the tourists to appreciate,” he added in Cebuano.
Oslob’s whale shark watching starts from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. /Marian Z. Codilla, Senior Reporter with Correspondent Jessa Chrisna Marie J. Agua