The case of Donsol's disappearing butanding

For years, Donsol in the province of Sorsogon has been the seasonal home of the butanding —whale sharks, gentle giants that feed only on plankton, fish eggs, and small fish. But all that is changing, as fewer and fewer sightings are being made of these basking behemoths.

“Ilang araw lang na walang sighting. Nung nakaraan mga 12 days na sunod-sunod na walang sightings, tapos nun apat na araw ulit na sunod-sunod na wala,” Raul Burce, project manager at the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF's) Donsol Project, told GMA News Online in a phone interview Friday.

April peak

According to Burce, this is unusual because the month of April is usually the peak season for butanding sightings. He recalled that, in the summer of 2010, as many as 15 to 18 butanding could be spotted at the water's surface at one time.

But these days, you would be lucky to see two or five animals at a time.

“Kumpara last year, mas unpredictable this season [ang sightings],” lamented Burce.

From 2007 to 2013, some 377 different whale shark individuals have been documented swimming the temperate seas of Donsol municipal waters.

Climate change

Based on the WWF's initial study, climate change may be indirectly to blame for Donsol's dwindling whalesharks.

“Walang direktang epekto ang climate change sa whale shark pero [mayroon itong epekto] sa pagkain. Posibleng walang pagkain sa Donsol. 'Pag walang food, hindi nagpapakita ang whale shark,” he explained.

Burce said that plankton, microscopic ocean plants, are very vulnerable to climate change. “Dahil sa sobrang init o ulan, hindi na siya timplado kaya susceptible sa pagbabago ng klima.”

Butanding are considered the largest fish specie in the world, growing up to 18 meters long and weighing up to 34 tons, according to the Butanding Network.

Changing season

In relation to climate change, Burce said that the season for whale shark sightings has also been changing: it appears to be starting earlier than usual.

Last year, the first sighting of butanding was noted on October 25, according to Burce. However, in previous years, whale sharks would only be spotted beginning in December.

“Nabago na ang pattern. This year napaaga ang appearance, tapos March to April (na dating peak season) halos wala na,” he said. “Kaya 'yung mga turista nag-aadjust na rin.”

Breaking the rules

Apart from butanding sightings, the main attraction for tourists both local and foreign is the chance to swim with these calm creatures.

Burce said that there are strict rules for such encounters, but Butanding Information Officers (BIO) and tourist guides sometimes don't follow them.

In particular, tourists are sometimes allowed to touch the whale sharks despite clear rules against doing so.

The volume of watchers is also a problem, he said.

“Ang carrying capacity lang ng isang boat ay six tourists lang pero ang nagswimming minsan hanggang 20 katao kaya nabubulabog [ang mga butanding],” Burce explained.

“’Pag maraming turista, umiiwas ang butanding dahil takot sa tao,” added Burce.

Declining tourists

The steady uptrend in tourist arrivals in Donsol since 2000 is now pressured to address the problem of fewer whale shark sightings.

In 2012, the local government of Donsol collected at least P6 million in fees and taxes alone, fueled by a record-high of over 27,000 tourist arrivals, Burce said.

In contrast, between January and April 2013, Donsol experienced a decline in tourist arrivals steep enough to upset many residents, who depend on tourism for their livelihood.

“Ngayon lang kami naka-record ng drop sa tourist arrival. Dahil less [ang] sighting, noong January to April mas mababa ng 12.5 percent ang tourist arrival,” he said.

“Malaki ang epekto sa turismo pag walang sighting… Pag walang turista, walang booking sa mga resorts, boat rental, van rental, at tricycle,” the WWF program director said.

“But since the season is not yet over, there is still no definite conclusion if the downward trend will continue for the rest of the year,” Burce added.

Retagging the whales

According to Burce, the decline in butanding sightings can be studied more carefully through the use of tagging devices.

Over the last five years, Donsol’s whale sharks have been intermittently tagged. However, due to budget constraints, they are not sure if they can do it again this year.

Such tagging devices can help researchers trace the butandings' migration routes and patterns to hopefully gain insights into the mysterious change in their behavior. — TJD, GMA News