Cultivating Conservation

Text and Photos by Stephen Frink

It is no secret that scuba divers are proponents of marine conservation. We love what we see, and we’d like to see more of it — more fish, more vibrant coral reefs and more artificial reefs — and enjoy it with better water quality and visibility. That’s why divers like to visit marine protected areas: They are better environmentally because we protect them, making them popular dive sites. Divers who embrace a dive site can influence conservation by emphasizing the kinship between humans and marine life.

I recently read an article from the The Guardian with an intriguing title: “How Whale Sharks Saved a Philippine Fishing Town and Its Sea Life” by Hannah Summers (Dec. 10, 2018). The story is about how once-struggling fishermen from Oslob, Philippines, formed a community-based dive company called Oslob Whale Sharks (OWS). The article mentioned a scientific study that explored the financial implications to the local community after they embraced dive tourism for visitors to swim with whale sharks.

Judi Lowe, a marine scientist and sustainable dive tourism expert who was one of the study’s authors, shared the abstract of the study, which drew some conclusions about OWS.
[OWS is] the most financially successful and controversial community-based dive tourism site in the world. Oslob Whale Sharks has generated income from ticket sales of approximately US$18.4 million over five years. We found that Oslob Whale Sharks has created alternate livelihoods for 177 fishers and diversified livelihoods throughout the community, reducing fishing effort and changing livelihood strategies away from reliance on coral reef resources.
Livelihoods from Oslob Whale Sharks increase food security for fishers and their families and improve the well-being of their community. … Our findings indicate connection between livelihoods and the provision of finance to protect whale sharks and manage five marine reserves, indicating that fishers and local government are protecting the whale sharks and coral reef resources their livelihoods depend on.

Oslob sustenance fishers had often experienced whale sharks bumping into their pangas and interfering with their nets, but they viewed the animals as a benign annoyance without resorting to finning or other mistreatments. They eventually discovered that a handful of krill could lure away the whale sharks. In 2011 a diver paid a local fisher to lure a whale shark near for a photograph, leading to the community’s dive tourism interests.

In many areas of the world divers may be lucky to have even a fleeting whale shark encounter, if any at all. But at Oslob they can count on seeing whale sharks on any of the 364 days of the year the authorized fishers operate — plus the water is clear, and the proximity is guaranteed. As the whale sharks go to the pangas for the bait, they are oblivious to the divers and snorkelers nearby in the water. Fees paid by the shore-based and liveaboard divers support the industry.

“As fishermen we were earning as little as $1.40 a day but nothing on days when the current was strong,” said former fisherman Jesson Jumuad, who now works for OWS. “Sometimes in a day I didn’t have any fish to be sold, but now I can give my family good food three times a day. I have built a brick house, bought a motor bike and can afford to send my daughter to school.”
Their newfound success is based on the whale sharks becoming a compelling diver attraction, but it is inextricably linked with protecting the natural marine resources and ecosystem that allow this to happen.

In another example of divers enhancing conservation, local activist divers recently transformed outrage into action at Blue Heron Bridge, an iconic site and shore dive off Riviera Beach, Florida, known for the weird and wonderful macro creatures found there (AlertDiver.com/Blue-Heron-Bridge).

Last October divers were putting bags of fish into containers in a big truck that was parked at Phil Foster Park, the gateway to Blue Heron. These tropical fish collectors from the Moody Gardens Aquarium Pyramid in Galveston, Texas, were there under permit by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The permit did not specifically say they could extract fish from Blue Heron Bridge, but it was broadly expansive in allowing them to extract from four counties, including Palm Beach County. Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because that’s where the money was, these tropical fish collectors worked Blue Heron Bridge for a full week because that’s where the fish were.

Local divers launched petitions and had heated discourse with local politicians and the FWC. Four months later the FWC approved changes in their regulations that would ensure that the snorkeling and diving opportunities at Blue Heron Bridge and Phil Foster Park in Palm Beach County remain at a high standard. Going into effect April 1 are rules that
  •  prohibit the collection and possession of marine life fishery species (species collected for and managed for the tropical aquarium trade) within the park and surrounding waters;
  •  protect other fishing activities, such as hook-and-line fishing or lobstering;
  •  allow direct transit by vessel of marine life species legally harvested outside the closed area through the closed area so long as the vessel does not stop; and
  •  allow species collected outside the closed area to be landed by motorized vessel at the park boat ramp and docks.

The batfish, seahorses, octopuses and snake eels can now rest a little easier at Blue Heron Bridge knowing that a tropical fish collector is not going to take them away from their home.

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