CIE Spotlight: Feeding the world’s largest fish: highly variable whale shark residency patterns at a provisioning site in the Philippines

Authors: Jordan A. Thomson, Gonzalo Araujo, Jessica Labaja, Emer McCoy, Ryan Murray, Alessandro Ponzo

Source: Royal Society Open Science

Brief summary of the paper: Provisioning wildlife for tourism is a controversial yet widespread practice. We analysed the residency patterns of juvenile whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in Oslob, Philippines, where provisioning has facilitated a large shark-watching operation since 2011. We identified 208 individual sharks over three years, with an average of 18.6 (s.d. = 7.8, range = 6–43) individuals sighted per week. Weekly shark abundance varied seasonally and peak-season abundance (approx. May–November) increased across years. Whale sharks displayed diverse individual site visitation patterns ranging from a single visit to sporadic visits, seasonal residency and year-round residency. Nine individuals became year-round residents, which represents a clear response to provisioning. The timing of the seasonal peak at Oslob did not align with known non-provisioned seasonal aggregations elsewhere in the Philippines, which could suggest that seasonal residents at Oslob exploit this food source when prey availability at alternative sites is low. Since prolonged residency equates to less time foraging naturally, provisioning could influence foraging success, alter distributions and lead to dependency in later life stages. Such impacts must be carefully weighed against the benefits of provisioning (i.e. tourism revenue in a remote community) to facilitate informed management decisions.