Shark tourism and the rebuilding of Malapascua

Steve De Neef
Shark tourism and the rebuilding of Malapascua
Shark tourism plays a big part in rebuilding Malapascua, bringing in generous donations from dive shops and tourists

MANILA, Philippines – Out in the deep blue water a silhouette appears, as it comes closer a large tail whips rhythmically from side to side. About a dozen divers stay close to the bottom as they watch this mysterious shape transform into a gracious shark.

Nobody down here is afraid, sharks are nothing like the man-eating creatures the media likes to portray them as. They are in fact not nearly as interested in us as we are in them.

What divers from all over the world have come here to witness is seeing pelagic thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus) gather at Monad Shoal, a submerged seamount near Malapascua Island.

Lawihan, as these thresher sharks are called locally, come up from the deep waters surrounding Monad Shoal every morning. They come here to get cleaned by the multitude of cleaner fish that inhabit this shoal. Nowhere else in the world can you see thresher sharks on a daily basis.

On November 8, 2013, just like in many other islands in the Philippines, Typhoon Yolanda caused widespread destruction on Malapascua. Miraculously there were no casualties but most houses and boats turned into rubble after the eye of this super typhoon passed right over the island.

Luckily Monad Shoal and its thresher sharks were spared. Only a few days after Yolanda, Malapascua had already received huge support from the dive industry and previous tourists who fell in love with the island. Local dive resorts and even resorts from different islands all contributed food, money, building materials, boats, and other supplies.

Six months after the typhoon passed almost everyone who lost his or her home managed to rebuild and continue life as it was. Tourists are still coming to see the pelagic thresher sharks and this brings in good income for the island.

Many locals on Malapascua rely on divers visiting the island some sort of income, even the fishermen are happy with the dive industry since this allows them to sell fish directly to the resorts for a good price without having to leave the island.

SHARK TOURISM. Pelagic thresher sharks are the reason so many divers flock to Malapascua Island. All photos by Steve De Neef.

If it was up to Felimar Malagase, a dive guide from Malapascua these sharks should be protected nationwide as the income derived from tourism far out ways the one time sale of a thresher shark at a market.

He insists that if there would be no thresher sharks around Malapascua the tourism wouldn’t be close to what it is today. He also believes many of the donations given by people after the typhoon are directly related to the thresher sharks.

The people of Malapascua truly love Lawihan, the distinct figure of the pelagic thresher shark is very present on the island, from the numerous souvenir stalls to the basketball court, pictures of thresher sharks are seen everywhere. And why wouldn’t you love the shark that brings fortune to this island?

It’s not all good news, however. Even though the local government of Daanbantayan declared Monad Shoal as a marine reserve in 2002, illegal fishing still happens on a regular basis. Since April 2014 the local dive shops have come together and are sending out a boat at night to patrol and ward off illegal fishermen.

Oscar and Alvin are two of the locals who patrol Monad at night, without any real authority or resources they say it’s very hard to stop people from fishing here. They can only use their friendly words and kindly ask fishermen to leave, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.

They said that in late April 2014, they found a fishing net near Monad with a dead shark caught inside, other dive shops reported the net had two thresher sharks and a turtle. Later on in May they encountered four fishermen using dynamite. They try their best to protect this unique place but more enforcement is needed.

Elsewhere in the Philippines thresher sharks are still hunted on a regular basis. Earlier this month pictures of thresher sharks being cut up on the beach in Tangke Talisay, Cebu made the news. It’s sad that within the same province these sharks are both adored and hunted. In other areas like Donsol, it’s common to see thresher shark meat at the local market.

It does seem like things are moving in the right direction, people are slowly becoming aware of the fact that sharks are very important in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems and are also worth way more alive then dead.

Getting the fishermen to tap into this industry is the real challenge. Researchers from the University of British Columbia estimate that global shark ecotourism brings in US$314 million and is expected to more then double in the next 20 years, that is, if we choose to protect this beautiful fish.

Steve De Neef is a photojournalist who specializes in conservation, documentary and underwater photography. His main focus is covering environmental issues in the Coral Triangle region and he uses his images and stories to encourage conservation of our blue planet. He’s the chief photographer of the Large Marine Vertebrate Project in the Philippines and a member of the prestigious Ocean Artist Society. He regularly works with Greenpeace and other NGO’s. This story was done with the support of the Shark Foundation, Switzerland,

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