Begging Whale Sharks Raise Concern in Philippines

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A whale shark feeding on plankton near Cancun and Holbox, Mexico.
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THE GIST

- Fishermen in the central Philippines have been feeding whale sharks baby shrimp since the 1980s.

- The practice makes the creatures rise to the surface for the amusement of tourists.

- Marine biologists are concerned the practice could make the giant fish dependent on handouts from people.

Whale sharks begging for food in the central Philippines have sparked a debate on whether feeding the giant fish may ultimately be hurting the creatures, officials said on Saturday.

While the mayor of the coastal town of Oslob insists that the practice of feeding the whale sharks does no harm and is good for tourism, environmentalists have recommended that it be halted.

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Fishermen in Oslob in the central resort island of Cebu have been feeding whale sharks with baby shrimp since the 1980s and now use this feeding to make the creatures rise to the surface of the water for the amusement of tourists.

"This has been practiced for a long time. When tourists come in, they want to see the whale sharks. So when they (the boatmen) spread these baby shrimps, these whale sharks would surface," said Oslob Mayor Ronald Guaren.

However Edmundo Arregadas, regional head of the coastal marine management division, said he had discouraged the mayor from continuing the practice of feeding the whale sharks, the world's largest fish.

"We told them it might have a negative effect on the natural way of life of the whale shark," he said. By feeding the whale sharks, the giant fish might become dependent on handouts from people, he warned.

"They are feeding it so they can have more tourists. But whale sharks are now used to the feeding act."

Expecting food, whale sharks might approach other boats and risk colliding with them. They also might be more vulnerable to poachers who will catch and kill them, Arregadas said.

However Mayor Guaren said that even after years of feeding, no whale sharks had turned up dead and insisted that the animals were not dependent on feeding and could still find food on their own.

"If that would be harmful, the whale sharks would not have stayed in the waters of Oslob," he said.

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Guaren said that the local government was regulating the feeding, ensuring that only a small number of boatmen would feed the whale sharks in a designated area only in the mornings.

Tourists are also barred from feeding or swimming with the whale sharks and the boatmen are required to use rowing boats and keep their distance to avoid hurting fish with their propellers or in collisions, Guaren said.

Arregadas said he had advised people in Oslob, which attracts many beach tourists, not to feed the whale sharks. But he could not impose rules on them.

"I hope they will come to understand that. We are not in a position to take sanctions against local government officials," he said.

Whale sharks measure as much as 12 metres (39 feet) long but are harmless to humans and feed on tiny marine animals. They are classified as "vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.)

The Philippines has banned the catching and killing of whale sharks and they have become popular tourist attractions in some towns.