Provisioning Practice with Whale Sharks

Marine Megafauna: An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation is a great Coursera MOOC led by Dr. David W. Johnston from Duke University. One writing assignment from the 2014 session requested students to choose and research a marine conservation issue. For each student, the final output was a brief, original synopsis of a marine conservation issue that was later peer-reviewed by other students in the class.

Below is a copy of the synopsis I wrote about the provisioning practice with whale sharks in Oslob, Philippines. The management of these sharks by the local fishermen was an especially controversial issue while I was studying BS Marine Biology in Cebu, Philippines. The situation was often discussed between the Biology Department faculty and students while I was studying at the University of San Carlos.


Image and video hosting by TinyPicZac Wolf, 6 May 2006


1.     Describe the nature of the problem. (suggested length: a short paragraph of 3 – 4 sentences); Author should state the problem and link it to a marine species or habitat (1 point)

Whale shark ‘ecotourism’ in the Philippines may be reducing the whale sharks’ willingness to hunt for nutritious food, altering their natural migration patterns, and causing them constant physical trauma. In Oslob, Philippines, whale sharks are exploited by fisherman who feed unsuitable and insufficiently nutritious food items to the sharks in order to aggregate them near to the shore. Then, scores of tourists are brought into close contact with the sharks everyday by the use of fishing boats. As a result, the sharks are occasionally struck by boats and exposed to de facto mishandling by myriad tourists who are overeager to touch the sharks directly.

The overall practice of feeding the whale sharks may be referred to as ‘provisioning.’


2.     Describe what is known about the causal factors for the problem and a geographic description of where the problem is manifesting. 2 points total – Author should provide at least two specific details about what appears to be causing the problem (2 details = 1 point) and a geographic description of where the problem is manifesting (1 point).

The causes of running provisioning operations are anthropological in nature.

One cause is socioeconomic. The fishermen conducting the operations were initially poor and otherwise unskilled. Upon receiving the revenue of the operations, the fishermen were able to afford simple luxuries (such as televisions) for themselves and their families. The fishermen have thus become reluctant to improve their ‘ecotourism’ system in any measurable way that is beneficial to the whale sharks, as their current methods have yielded a relatively large amount of income.

Another cause is political in nature. The local government has somewhat taken the whale shark operation into its own hands and gleaned income from it. The local government now fully backs the fishermen despite some marine biologists’ warnings that the operation may be harming the sharks.

The geographic location of the situation here is directly off-shore Barangay Tan-Awan, Oslob, Cebu. The area is a relatively shallow area with sparse coral cover on the ocean bottom. The water column in the area is deep enough for the whale sharks to pitch up and hang vertically when responding to feeding from the boats.


3.     Describe the species and or habitat components involved and provide the IUCN conservation status of the species. 3 points total – Author should provide details on the species or genus involved (Scientific name and common name of species or genus = 1 point), its conservation status according to the IUCN (1 point), and also provide at least one detail about the habitat component involved (1 point).

The species involved is Rhincodon typus, which is commonly called the whale shark. The IUCN places the conservation status of the whale shark as “Vulnerable” and notes that the population seems to be still decreasing. Although the whale sharks are arrested at Oslob, the related habitat component technically involves a consideration of the entire migration path of the whale sharks. Tagging studies have shown that the whale sharks travel very long-distances multiple times every year, between sites offshore of places such as north-west Australia, the Mindanao Sea, Vietnam, the Gulf of California, Tonga, the Seychelles, Zanzibar, Somalia, and Thailand. While the whale sharks remain at Oslob, they are not travelling to these other places for breeding purposes or other important reasons.


4.     Describe a scientific study that was conducted to increase our understanding of the problem or address its effects on the species or marine habitats involved. This should include the title of the study and a link to it online, the purposes of the study and the conclusions of the study. (suggested length: a paragraph of 4 – 8 sentences); 3 points total – Author should state the full title of the study and provide a link to its location on the web (1 point), provide the purpose of the study (1 point), and describe the results of the paper in the context of the conservation issue at hand (1 point).

Food provisioning for the Oslob whale sharks started only this last 2011. Thus, studies that have been conducted on the situation have mostly been presented only at marine biological conferences. Nevertheless, summaries can be found in certain places online and by contacting researchers who work at organizations such as Physalus.

The title of one study that assessed the affected whale sharks at Oslob is “Describing the population structure of Rhincodon typus occurring in the waters of Oslob– Cebu, Philippines– between March 2012 and June 2013, during the provisioning interaction hours.” The study can be found at:

(The full citation is: Araujo G, Ponzo A, Geary D, Craven S, Snow SJ et al. (2013) Describing the population structure of Rhincodon typus occurring in the waters of Oslob– Cebu, Philippines– between March 2012 and June 2013, during the provisioning interaction hours. PeerJ PrePrints 1:e70v1

PURPOSE: The purpose of the study was to examine the population structure (i.e. the number of individuals per sex, sizes by photogrammetry, photo-identification, resighting records, etc.) of the Oslob whale sharks.

RESULTS: The researchers were able to determine that an average of 28.9 whale sharks appeared at the Oslob provisioning site every month. Even up to 46 distinct whale sharks appeared at Oslob in June 2012 and May 2013. Nine of the sharks were recognized from studies conducted elsewhere, in Donsol and Southern Leyte. The results show that the provisioning practice at Oslob is affecting a sizable number of whale sharks, which emphasizes the need to fully investigate the impact of the provisioning practice on the whale shark population in the Philippines.


5.      A brief expert biography of a conservation biologist who is studying the selected conservation issue. (suggested length: a short paragraph of 3 sentences maximum); 2 points total – Author identifies a conservation biologist (or closely related field) and provides a short biography of their contribution to the profiled conservation issue. (2 points).

Samantha Craven is a marine biologist with a Masters in Applied Marine Science from the University of Plymouth. She currently works with the Large Marine Vertebrates (LAMAVE) Project, under the non-governmental organization Physalus. The LAMAVE project is studying the Oslob whale sharks in the Philippines; Craven and her team are noting the behavioral patterns of the whale sharks and recording the number of times that they were illegally touched by the tourists. Ms. Craven has a blog at: Physalus – LAMAVE website:


6.      Three further readings on the topic. These can range from journal articles to popular press pieces, including readings in languages other than English. None of the ‘further readings’ should include the study used in part #4 of the assignment. Wikipedia and similar sources of aggregated knowledge also should not be used for these references. 1 point total – Author should provide at least 3 additional readings on the conservation issue described in the profile.

Further readings:

Locals, biologists face off over Philippine whale shark feeding; by David Loh; Mar 12, 2013:

Oslob urged to stop feeding the whale sharks; Cebu Daily News; June 18, 2013:

Ponzo A, Araujo G, Labaja J, So CL, Snow SJ et al. (2013) Whale Shark Provisioning: What do we know and where do we stand; The case study of Oslob, Philippines. PeerJ PrePrints 1:e69v1

Economic Importance of Conserving Whale Sharks; Brad Norman and James Catlin:

Regarding a similar situation in Donsol, Philippines:
R. Pine, M.N.R. Alava & A.A. Yaptinchay – Challenges and lessons learned in setting-up a community-based whale shark ecotourism program: The case in Donsol, Philippines


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