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Can We Save the Thresher Sharks in Verde Passage?

It was in late 2007 when Cecille Rosales, the tourism officer of Batangas City started posting and reporting in her multiply site about the catching and selling of thresher sharks in the waters of Batangas Bay (which is part of the larger Verde Passage located between the province of Batangas and the big islands of Mindoro and Marinduque. At first, I hardly gave any notice given that I could not really relate because I am not a scuba diver.

But her reports and logs kept increasing and I began to do more research on the animal. By another co-incidence, I became a consultant of Bantay Kalikasan, a big, media-based NGO that included the Verde Passage as part of their advocacy areas. That's when things started to fall into place (as far as I am concerned).

One barangay in Batangas City really catch the animal in order to augment their iffy fishing livelihood of sardines. They regard the shark as more of a pest because it eats their catch and destroys their fishing nets (actually not true, but more of a convenient excuse). Listening to the fishermen how they survive through fishing the shark could make you shake your head that issues like this are ever present in many communities in the Philippines. But we could not just accept this as a fact that we have to live with. We know, from many experiences, that there are ways to address the issue of conservation and socio-economic well-being of the people.

The situation for the thresher shark could already be very bleak. Their sexual maturity could be very late (8 years for the female) and they reproduce only about 2 offsprings per birth, and they don't give birth on a regular pattern. In March, a total of 29 thresher sharks were caught in only three days! For conservationists like Simon Oliver (a visiting British guy specializing on the sharks), that is already very, very alarming!

I've personally seen some of the dead sharks that were caught and I'm telling you, the experience could be numbing. Five dead sharks were lined and you could just imagine how awesome they could be if seen alive and swimming freely in their natural habitat. The long, banner-like tails that reach about five feet, easily match their body length. Their mouths and teeth were quite small, indicating that they only eat small preys such as sardines and squids. Yup! They DO NOT and CANNOT eat humans.

And I was imagining that there could be an opportunity to help save the remaining thresher sharks (the three species found in the Philippines are now labeled as Vulnerable by the IUCN, an international conservation body). The good thing is that thresher shark encounter has been an established tourist activity in very few areas in the world (one is in Malapascua Island in Cebu). So we have here a major, MAJOR ecotourism product that can attract a good number of scuba divers. Another good thing is that the Philippines is no stranger to wildlife-based ecotourism product development. We've seen it with the whales, dolphins and whale sharks whose numbers and habitats are now zealously protected by the locals because of the viable livelihood they now enjoy (update: except Oslob in Cebu where the practice of whale shark watching is constantly questioned).

For the thresher shark ecotourism to flourish, some major efforts will have to be done. The people and officials of Batangas City (and the province) should pitch in to protect the animal by banning the catching of the animal. Of course, the national government agencies must also do their jobs. Efforts must be done to convince the fishing community to stop the catching of animals and they should be willing to embrace an alternative livelihood in place of unsustainable harvesting. And yes, ban the catching and killing of this awesome animal in danger. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. As I said earlier, it has been done in other areas, it could easily be implemented for the Thresher Shark in other parts of the Philippines.