Acting Governor Rene Relempagos on Monday issued an executive order directing Lila Mayor Jed Piollo to impose a moratorium on whale shark interaction activities in waters off the town which have recently emerged as the province’s newest tourist attraction but have drawn serious flak from environmental groups.
Executive Order No. 57, signed December 23, ordered Piollo to suspend the whale shark interaction pending the passage of a Sangguniang Panlalawigan (SP) ordinance that would regulate the activity in Barangay Taug, Lila.
The legislation will be drafted in coordination with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and Department of Tourism for the new tourism activity to be conducted in accordance with existing laws and marine conservation policies.
As stated in the EO, the Bohol Environmental Management Office will investigate the legality of the whale shark interaction business.
The investigation stemmed from a complaint raised by Kahugpungan sa Bol-anon Guides which alleged that Lila has not passed an ordinance or a resolution which would serve as guidelines for the conduct of the whale-shark interaction.
Prior to the EO’s issuance, both the local government unit of Lila and the operator of the whale shark feeding in waters off the town were already poised to suspend the operations of the shark interaction for both locals and tourists.
Piollo who was supposed to order the suspension on Monday said that he will issue the directive once he arrives in Bohol from Cebu City where he remained stranded due to the cancellation of sea trips caused by Severe Tropical Storm Ursula.
Piollo’s anticipated suspension of the whale shark interaction came after it drew flak from various environmental groups which called the attraction “exploitation” and a hazard to the “ecological balance” in the province.
Meanwhile, Greg Jala, chief of SeaWorld and Nature Park which oversees the whale shark interaction and son of Board Member Elpidio Jala, expressed willingness to shut down the operations once Piollo issues the order.
Jala however assured the public that the operations started with the approval of the Lila LGU through the town’s Sangguniang Bayan under Piollo and also the town’s former mayor Regina Salazar.
“Willingly sila ning agree sa tanan. Unanimously approved, ni-agi ta’g public hearing, barangay memorandum of agreement and sa mayor,” he said.
According to Jala, the whale shark interaction has generated employment for 65 people, mostly fishermen, who were given access to Philhealth and Social Security System benefits.
“Kaning gibuhat nato na tourist attraction, di nato ikalikay na na makahatag ni og kaayuhan labina sa lungsod sa Lila,” he said.
However, marine conservation coalitions such as Save Sharks Network Philippines (SSNP), condemned the feeding of whale sharks for economic purposes which it said is “a clear form of exploitation and harms ecological balance in Bohol.”
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Philippines, whale sharks are an endangered species as assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and is considered a protected species through the Fisheries Administrative Order 193 (1998) and the Philippine Fisheries Code.
“Whale shark feeding is becoming more rampant and WWF-Philippines is against this practice,” it said in a statement issued earlier this month on the whale shark interaction in Lila.
WWF Philippines noted that people feeding the whale sharks hampers the migratory behavior of the sea creatures which seasonally migrate to waters off Indonesia or Malaysia to reach their mating, breeding, and pupping grounds.
“When wild animals get used to being fed, they would inevitably seek out the source of this food and would start associating humans and boats with the likelihood of being fed. This makes them more vulnerable to hunting and boat collisions, causing death and for their numbers to dwindle,” the WWF said.
Meanwhile, Free the Whale Sharks Coalition – Bohol which earlier launched an online petition to suspend operations of the whale shark interaction lauded the provincial government for its swift action on the issue which quickly drew nationwide attention as soon as it attracted both locals and tourists.
“The executive order is a step to the right direction, and we will hold accountable those who will continue to violate the executive order and existing laws through continued feeding and luring of whale sharks during Christmas day and the rest of the holidays,” it said in a statement. (with R. Tutas)