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In the wild: Bohol’s dolphins and whales

April 6, 2012 1:31pm

Tags: Bohol
Known as one of the prime dolphin- and whale-watching sites in the Philippines, the island province of Bohol was once lauded in national and international circles as a classic victory for conservation, when whale hunters became whale watchers for the burgeoning tourism industry. It is a name that was built on the fishing communities’ long-held tradition of hunting these large animals, and their decision to stop the practice in favor of protecting them.

After years of struggle between communities and NGOs, however, the dolphin-whale watching industry in Bohol is barely surviving, and not because of a lack of dolphins or whales. Rather, it is because tourism entails considerable investment, good marketing strategies, and business-minded people.

Tourism businesses are also seasonal; during the months when the seas are rough, very few tourists come to visit the island. Worse, competitors from nearby Panglao Island offer similar tours, with non-local tour operators wanting a piece of the pie that was promised to the former whalers in exchange for giving up whale hunting.

Last year, another threat to the livelihood of the fishers surfaced: plans to establish a dolphin rescue and breeding facility in Bohol started to circulate among conservation groups just as the island province was preparing for its first dolphin festival in May. Local fisheries staff verified that there was indeed such a plan, and this year, a reliable source reported that a local government official has approved the proposal.

Such a plan is a slap on the face of local communities that have been protecting the dolphins in the wild, out there in the calm seas where they can swim freely. After all, a dolphinarium is not just a rescue facility; it is also a ‘holding’ and training facility for dolphins. Dolphins that are “rehabilitated” are then trained to perform in marine parks, transforming the ‘rescued’ dolphin into a thousand-dollar investment that no one will just allow to swim away. A dolphin breeding center is, in reality, a business.

From whalers to whale spotters

Let’s take a few steps back and trace the origins of the first policies protecting marine mammals in the Philippines.

In the early 1990s, there was an outcry from local and foreign conservationists when the front pages of newspapers featured the traditional practice of whale and dolphin hunting in Pamilacan in Bohol. Similar reports came up in international conferences abroad, and the ensuing outrage triggered the ban on the hunting of dolphins and whales. Critics said the practice was cruel, barbaric, and unsustainable.

Thus, the Philippines became one of the first countries in Southeast Asia with policies protecting marine mammals. The country has banned the catching, selling, or transporting of dolphins and whales since 1992 through Fisheries Administrative Order 185. The Animal Welfare Act was also put in place in 1998. Fisheries Administrative Order 208 on the conservation of rare, threatened, and endangered fishery species, which includes whales and dolphins, followed in 2001. The list goes on, proving that the Philippines has progressed in terms of environmental policies and joined the ranks of more developed countries in protecting marine mammals.

But what about the traditional whale hunters? One proposed solution was to convert them into whale watchers. However, the tourism business is not a stable source of income for Pamilacan residents, who earn a few hundreds of pesos from it along with very little else from other sources. It is also seasonal, merely supplementing the livelihood that is left for them, and only a few people directly benefit from the industry.

Dolphins in captivity

Worse, whatever income the former whale hunters earn from the whale- and dolphin-watching tourism industry is under threat from indoor shows.

When I first got into marine mammal work in the Philippines, the first dolphinarium in the country was still under construction. Conservationists managed to stall its completion for several years, but were eventually overpowered by the proprietors of the facility. Today, this dolphin aquarium boasts that their “animals live and play in a natural setting of clear water teeming with marine life, coral reefs, and a lovely white sand beach.”

The battle against this dolphinarium continues with protests, appeals, and campaigns. Yet, similar places are sprouting up in different corners of the archipelago. One shocking example is the outfit off Misamis Occidental that claims to have “rescued” dolphins but instead, puts them in holding pens where tourists can swim and snorkel with the animals. Another marine park in Manila has been planning to bring in dolphins as well, and such plans have now reached the shores of Bohol.

The problem with these dolphin centers is that they propagate falsehoods to attract customers.

One fallacy is that dolphins in captivity live longer than their counterparts in the wild. In fact, many dolphins in holding pens die several years before reaching maturity. One example close to home is the four false killer whales kept in Subic that all died at young ages.

Another argument of dolphin show entrepreneurs is that they provide educational entertainment, giving people who normally will not have the chance to see the animals up close a convenient opportunity to watch them in an accessible venue. But how can this be educational? Behaviors such as jumping into the air to hit a red ball are certainly not normal in the wild. Instead, dolphin shows propagate the illusion that humans can exert control over wild animals because we are superior to them.

In Bohol, some people have suggested that a dolphin rescue facility is needed due to the increase in the reported number of animals getting stranded in coastal areas around the province. However, it is unclear how such a trend was established, and it is important to analyze the factors behind the numbers.

First of all, a baseline or reference point is needed to establish an upward or downward trend. For example, if we take the year 2000 as a reference point, we need verified reports on how many animals were stranded around the province; if a stranding was not documented, it will not be counted. There are several factors to consider here, such as people’s awareness and the development of technology. Marine mammal stranding response trainings have been conducted around the country since 1999, a lot more in the last five years, which could mean a greater number of people are now aware of the need to report such events. Furthermore, mobile phones are now ubiquitous everywhere, and this is no doubt a huge factor influencing the increase in reporting. Therefore, an increase in the number of reports of stranding does not necessarily mean an increase in the actual occurrence of stranding events.

The proponents of the Bohol dolphinarium have also argued that most of the stranded animals are still alive when found, thus the need for facilities to rescue and rehabilitate them. Regardless of whether this claim is true or not, the primary objective when responding to the stranding of a live marine mammal is to ensure the safe return of the animal to its natural habitat. Therefore, responders must employ the safest and least invasive way of returning the animal back out to sea as soon as possible. The option of rehabilitation is impractical and expensive: why spend millions to build a facility to ‘save’ a few animals when there are possibly thousands out in the wild needing protection?

Bohol as a natural marine park

If people can afford to spend more than 3,000 pesos each to take a 3-hour trip to Subic to see these animals perform tricks, why can’t they save a few thousand pesos by taking a 2-hr trip to Batangas where they can see dolphins in the wild doing their natural behavior, playfully spinning around or leaping on the surface of the water? Why can’t they take the one-hour flight to Tagbilaran or Dumaguete and go dolphin watching in the seas of Central Visayas instead?

There is no need to spend millions of pesos to build an artificial ‘dolphin park’ when the Bohol Sea is already a huge natural marine park where you can see whales and dolphins in their natural habitat as well as sea turtles, whale sharks, and numerous other species of tropical marine life.

Instead of building captive dolphin facilities, why not spend time and money in mitigating threats to wild marine mammal populations? Why not promote conservation in their natural environment, conduct more research that will allow us to better understand these animals, or help small fishing communities develop a sustainable livelihood?

Why would Bohol want to tarnish its reputation by hosting a facility that will take these wild animals from their natural habitat into enclosures that will, no matter how large, never be able to imitate their natural home and further risk the livelihoods of small island communities?

The story of the whales and dolphins in the province is the story of the dependency of fishing communities on the animals swimming wild in the Bohol Sea. Forced to give up the hook for the sake of conservation, these people are still trying to adapt to these changes in their lives. It is hoped that, for the sake of the locals and the dolphins alike, the proposal to establish a dolphinarium can be stopped. – YA, GMA News

Jo Marie Acebes is a biologist, conservationist, and a veterinarian. She worked for several conservation NGOs before starting a small group called Balyena.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to the research and conservation of whales and dolphins in the Philippines. She is currently pursuing a PhD at Murdoch University in Western Australia. The views expressed in this article are solely her own.

Tags: Bohol



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