In 2013, a major typhoon hit the Philippines, devastating natural resources and economic infrastructure. A small island resort area named Malapascula was especially effected. The area surrounding Malapascula was crushed; cars lying on flattened buildings, fishing boats thrown out to sea, and palm trees scattered across neighborhoods with no homes remaining. However, one thing remained unharmed from the typhoon; the pelagic thresher sharks. Thresher sharks are a resilient species, as shown by their extreme survival and feeding skills. They are most commonly recognized by the extra-long top lobe of their caudal fin, used to whip and stun fish before they are eaten. The thresher sharks most often use this enhanced hunting strategy to feed from large schools of fishes (Oliver et al 2013).
|Thresher Shark. Photo by Hugh Ross. Source|
The thresher sharks occupy the surrounding waters around a deserted island off the coast of Malapascula; traveling daily to hunt in the shallower waters and have parasites cleaned off by other fishes. Before the tragic typhoon, natives used this opportunity to catch these sharks for their fins. All the sharks in one area made it easy for the fisherman to reach quota. After the typhoon, natives still used these sharks for fins to try and regain their infrastructure, but were somewhat unsuccessful. The main sharks currently being exploited for their fins belong to the Hammerhead genus/species. Due to the increasing market for those species, other Asian countries were more interested in buying and trading those fins. This caused a drastic decline in the market for thresher shark fins (Dearden et al 2007). With one revenue diminishing before their eyes, the natives were desperately trying to figure out a new way to bring the economy back. The native fisherman always had shark tourism as a small side business, and some slowly started to turn to that as their main business. When putting all effort into the new business idea, fisherman started to see an increase in profit. The number of tourists wanting to have shark experiences was rising almost overnight; the pelagic thresher shark tourism soon became a booming industry.
Because of the location of the sharks in their hunting ground, boats had the opportunity to bring tourists in to watch the thresher sharks without influencing their natural activities. A large diving industry also started to appear with thresher sharks, as they are not historically known to attack humans like other sharks (bull, whitetip, tiger, etc.). This cageless, viewing-only ecotourism tactic has not only helped rebuild the local economy of the island, but has also helped the thresher shark species. The natives now acknowledge that they need these large predators to help them economically, so they have halted the fishing of this shark species. Fisherman who used to make their money from catching as many thresher sharks as they could now make their money from this unique eco-tourism trade-off (Topelko et al 2005).
From a conservation standpoint, thresher sharks only make up a small amount of the shark fin market, as stated earlier. However, a problem the people of Malapascula ran into was that the sharks could still be killed off in masses because of by-catch. Their long whip like tails make it easier for them to be caught in the nets intended for other sharks. Because of this, shark fishing in the Malapascula area has stopped completely in efforts to save the shark that saved the island. However, even though this island has stopped shark fishing, other parts of the Philippines, as well as many other countries, still have open shark fishing. Even with conservation efforts led by the people of Malapascula, it’s hard to lead and inspire a change. Other islands in the Philippines are seeing the work the locals at Malapascula are putting in and seeing the benefits of these sharks. There is still a huge shark finning problem in the Philippines, as well as other Asian countries, but there has been a very slow decrease over the past few years (Constable 2016).
Not only is the relationship between the thresher sharks and the natives helping the economy, it’s also helping the ecosystem. Biodiversity is slowly returning to the surrounding area and it’s all thanks to the increased protection and health of the pelagic thresher sharks. When tourists go out to see the sharks, they’re also seeing hundreds of other species of fishes from various taxa all working together in the environment. Due to the increased safety of the sharks, they have rebounded incredibly fast, alongside of the local economy. Even though these sharks have been a staple in these waters forever, the increase in the number of sharks spotted has been noticeable, which make tourists even more excited (Constable 2016). As mentioned earlier, these sharks provide a safe tourism experience. Swimming with sharks has always been a stable tourism aspect of many countries, however, these sharks are gentle but still cool looking. This experience gives tourists a whole new view of sharks.
The relationship between the sharks and the natives can be classified as mutualistic because the native fishermen have completely stopped the harvest of sharks, which obviously has increased the numbers of the sharks. The sharks in return provide an avenue for the economic revenue the island desperately needs. For these reasons, the relationship between the parties falls under the “protection” segment of the mutualistic relationship. In the last few years, people have started to understand the importance of sharks, hopefully Malapascula can become an example for other parts of Asia where shark finning is still incredibly prevalent (Constable 2016).
In conclusion, the use of ecotourism in the form of diving and guided tours has both helped the local human economy and local pelagic thresher shark populations. The pelagic thresher shark, although very funky and fascinating, is still a shark at risk of exploitation (Topelko et al 2005).
Constable, H. 2016. Sharks are helping the Philippines recover from a typhoon. BBC Earth. Available at http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20161107-sharks-are-helping-the-philippines-recover-from-a-typhoon.
Dearden, P., K.N. Topelko, J. Ziegler. 2007. Tourist Interactions with sharks. Pages 66-89, editors James E.S. Higham and Michael Luck. Marine Wildlife and Tourism Management: Insights from the Natural and Social Sciences
Oliver, S.P., J. R. Turner, K. Gann, M. Silvosa, T. D’Urban Jackson. 2013. Thresher sharks use tail-slaps as a hunting strategy. Plos One.
Topelko, K.N., P. Dearden. 2005. The shark watching industry and its potential contribution to shark conservation. Journal of Ecotourism. 4:2.