Whale Shark Tourism Harms Coral Reefs

Whale shark tourism has lowered coral density and diversity off the coast of Tan-awan in the Philippines.

AsianScientist (Dec. 26, 2018) – Scientists in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Guam have found that whale shark tourism in Tan-awan, Oslob, the Philippines, has led to degradation of the local coral reef ecosystem. They reported their findings in Environmental Management.

Oslob, a small municipality on the south coast of Cebu, the Philippines, has become a domestic and international tourism hotspot since 2011, attracting over 300,000 visitors to the village of Tan-awan in 2015. The mass tourism phenomenon is fueled by the year-round presence of whale sharks along the local shallow reef. This unusual aggregation is maintained by the local tourism association feeding the whale sharks with up to 50 tons of shrimps annually.

In this study, scientists from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the University of Guam, and the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE) have demonstrated that whale shark tourism has had a detrimental effect on the local reef ecosystem off the coast of Tan-awan. They found that Tan-awan had higher macroalgae and lower coral density, as well as a less diverse coral community dominated by weedy corals and stress-tolerant corals, in comparison to a reference site further south of the coast.

“It is vital for all stakeholders to understand that the environmental and societal well-being go hand in hand. I hope that everyone can come to the table to contribute to management and conservation efforts to reverse the trend of reef degradation in Tan-awan,” said study co-author Professor Martin Wong from HKU.

The researchers added that reef degradation in Tan-awan requires immediate attention, given that reef health underpins the ecosystem services afforded to the local communities, including the important tourism sector. As whale shark tourism is projected to grow continuously in the foreseeable future, the research team urges the need for local authorities to implement proper management strategies to mitigate the problems and risks associated with the rapid tourism development.

“We are positive that with this baseline data at hand, the local authorities will look further into the long term and broader ecological impact of mass tourism activities, in Oslob as well as in many other areas in the country,” said Dr. Alessandro Ponzo of LAMAVE, adding that prioritizing the conservation of marine resources, shifting towards sustainable tourism and ensuring local food security through the conservation and restoration of healthy marine ecosystems will be necessary.

The article can be found at: Wong et al. (2018) Whale Shark Tourism: Impacts on Coral Reefs in the Philippines.


Source: University of Hong Kong; Photo: Steve De Neef/LAMAVE.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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