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How Much Do Whale Sharks Cost?

The sun was still high in the sky as we made our way to the first lift net boat. The fishers, who had been resting after nights of fishing, indicated that there was indeed a whale shark swimming under their platform and got a few bags of small anchovies to feed the whale shark as we plunged into the water.

Lida swimming with Whale Shark in Papua
Lida swimming with Whale Shark in Papua

The whale shark was not bothered at all while we took many pictures and swam slowly with it. Our local WWF team, led by Benny Noor, related how the presence of whale sharks in the Cendrawasih National Park had generated a lot of international attention recently. Cassandra Tania – WWF monitoring officer – explained how the collaboration with renowned whale shark scientist Brent Steward of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, San Diego, is helping the national park authorities determine how best to protect the whale sharks and manage tourism activities that have sprung up in the past year.

The hype around the possibility of swimming or diving with whale sharks affected me a year ago, when I received a very angry email from a concerned foreign tourist, demanding that WWF immediately step in to protect whale sharks and ensure that whale sharks would not be hurt by the locals and that guests traveling to the area via “live aboard” boats could enjoy encounters with these gentle giants in a well-organized manner.

My local WWF colleagues had been facilitating the resolution of a conflict between the lift net fishers, the communities living in the area, and the live aboard dive operators who had started to give the lift net fishers money in order for tourists to swim around their platforms.

One community member had threatened to kill the whale sharks because the economic benefits of the tourism activities were not being shared with his community—the rightful “owners” of the area where the lift net fishers (mostly temporary fishers from Sulawesi several miles away) operated. The angry community member felt that if his community would not benefit from the whale sharks, then no one else should.

Now that the conflict has been resolved, it continues to be the park authority’s responsibility to make sure that the whale sharks are treated well and protected.

The research that was initiated to understand the migration patterns of whale sharks and our observer program, which will generate information on the impact of the lift net fishery on the abundance of whale shark food (anchovies), will be key to the effective protection of these gentle giants of the ocean. Nonetheless, the lift net fishers and community members have an important role to play too.

Local community conservation group in Cendrawasih National Park
Local community conservation group in Cendrawasih National Park

The fact that Papuan communities abide by strong traditional tenure regulations known as hak ulayat is both a promise and a challenge for effective management of fishing and conservation activities in the national park. This was illustrated rather directly, as we got stuck on the way to the whale sharks earlier in the week. The airport of Manokwari was closed over a community conflict related to the new expansion of the airport building and its facilities. With a three-hour delay, we eventually arrived at our destination, but only because the local government had to agree to pay the local community that owns the land around the airport the requested amount of approximately half a million US dollars. Having paid 20% of it to open up the airport again, the government now faces tough negotiations for the remaining request. The amount does not seem commensurate to the small size of the land needed.

This example illustrates to me how important it is to invest in outreach and education especially among the young Papuan generation. If we start putting a cash value on everything that falls under the hak ulayat tenure scheme, there may be no end to the payments. A developing understanding of the importance of sustainable fishing and a resulting local stewardship that incorporates right-based management with full protection of areas for endangered wild life and fisheries replenishment will be the hope for a future where people in Papua will continue to benefit from the riches that their fascinating land and waters encompass.

Two whale sharks looking for an easy meal under a fish liftnet platform in Papua, Indonesia
Two whale sharks looking for an easy meal under a fish liftnet platform in Papua, Indonesia

As my camera runs out of battery after shooting so many photos of the beautiful whale sharks, I reflect that these whale sharks are here only because they get an easy fill of small fish. For the long term, however, as for the coastal communities throughout the Coral Triangle, we must get better now at collaborative management for the sustainability of fish populations.

With a growing need for seafood, unfortunately, there are no quick fixes.