The Tawikis are back in the seas of Misamis

Sep 29, 2011

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The tawikis are back in the seas of Misamis Oriental, and that’s a good sign.

So believes the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Region 10 (BFAR-10) in a press briefing held last May 2 to mark the start of the Farmers’ & Fisher Folks’ Month Celebration.

A BFAR-10 team headed by Teodoro Bacolod Jr., quarantine section chief, responded to a call made by divers from Balingoan, Misamis Oriental last May 1 that a 30 foot whale shark (Rhincodon typus, locally known as tawiki or tuki-tuki) had been trapped in a 50 square meter fish corral (bungsod) with a depth of 40-50 feet owned by Tilda Orais in Guiwanon, Talisayan, Misamis Oriental.

The BFAR team linked up with personnel from the Talisayan local government headed by Municipal Agricultural Officer Milan Balacuit, and including deputized fish wardens and some members of the Whale Shark Spotters Association and proceeded to the area where the whale shark was trapped around noon.

With the help of two fishermen tending the fish corral identified as Rene Paboralinan and Toto Bagtong, the adult whale shark was released around one o’clock the same day.

“They told us it was the 17th whale shark to have entered the fish corral,” Mr. Bacolod reported. “The whale sharks are apparently attracted by the fish which are being raised in the fish corral.”

However, Mr. Balacuit informed Angie Cabig, BFAR-10 public information officer last Wednesday that another whale shark, estimated at five meters in length, had again entered the fish corral but was later safely released by fishermen tending the fish corral

“We are happy the number of whale shark sightings in our area has been increasing because this indicates the condition of our marine ecology is improving,” said Arlene B. Pantanosas, BFAR-10 regional director.

Bencyrus Ellorin, spokesman of the environment watch dog group Task Force Macajalar and former coordinator of the Center for Alternative Rural Technology (CART), echoed Ms. Pantanosas observation.

“Vigilance and a fisher folk community enlightened on the need to preserve this internationally protected species was instrumental in saving the whale sharks,” Mr. Ellorin noted. “Had it not been for the Coastal and Fisheries Resource Management in Gingoog Bay organized by BFAR and non-government organizations like the CART, which did community organizing in the bay a few years back, the whales could have been dead meat.”

CART was the NGO partner for community organizing of BFAR in the Fisheries Resource Management Project in Gingoog and Butuan Bays, an Asian Development Bank-Japan Bank for International Cooperation (ADB-JBIC) funded project in 2000-2004, Mr. Ellorin said.

“The whale shark hunters are part of the fisher folk CART organized in Talisayan, particularly in the Guiwanon area where the fish corral which trapped the whale sharks is found,” he added.

Prior to the government ban on the landing, slaughter and trading of whale sharks, the tawiki were hunted for their meat and fins by an indigenous fishery consisting of fishermen from Talisayan and Matigue Island in Camiguin. Up to a hundred juvenile whale sharks were previously landed annually by the fishery which later also included whalers from Pamilacan, Bohol looking for an alternative livelihood after the international ban on whaling was implemented by the BFAR.

The Fisher folk of Talisayan had known about the phenomenon for decades but only learned much later from divers and marine biologists about the species known to local fishermen as “tawiki” and tuki or tuki-tuki to Cebuanos. Every year, the great fish would swim in great numbers through Camiguin Channel and were speared by the hundreds by fishermen, mainly from nearby Talisayan and from far away as Pamilakan, Bohol and Zamboanga, who sell them for their meat, fins, hide and oil.

The hitherto unidentified fish turned out to be the great Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus), largest of allliving fishes known to man, which may reach a length of twenty meters and weigh as much as 45 tons, although the ones caught by the  Talisayan fishermen are generally juveniles which range fromtwo to seven meters in length and two to four metric tons in weight.

The whale shark has a large terminal mouth, small eyes and extremely small, pointed teeth. Its dark back and sides are
marked by a pattern of light spots combed with crossing lines. Little is known of this huge creature’s habits, but it has been observed to feed on plankton, pelagic crustaceans, baitfish, squid and even unwary tuna. Plankton is composed
of a floating population of diatoms and algae, protozoa, copepods, and the eggs and immature forms of fish, sea urchins, star fish, shrimps, crabs and sea worms. These tiny creatures are sucked into the shark’s mouth as it draws in
water. When it expels the water through the long gill clefts inside its mouth screened by long and slender devices called gill rakers, the plankton are strained and pass on down the shark’s gullet. The whale shark likes to float near the surface of the waters where it feeds on plankton. and on rare occasions have given divers the thrill of hitching a ride on its fins. Whale sharks are ovoviviparous, that is, they give birth to fully developed young that are hatched inside the mother.

The whale sharks usually do their annual migration from the Pacific Ocean to the South China Sea , when they feed on
krill, specifically  “uyap” or “alamang” (Acetes spp.) and “pidlayan” which generally spawn during the fishes’ peak
season in the first quarter of the year. The former “Killing Fields” for the great fish were found one kilometer or so off the waters of Salay to Binuangan municipalities along the eastern shoreline of Misamis Oriental province. They have also been reported in the waters off Surigao and Davao.

Fishing operations start early in the morning around 5AM, and last until 10AM. It usually took some two hours for a team of six fishermenin two pump boats to kill a whale shark. Residents and observers say fishermen often leave the dying whale shark lashed to a buoy which is anchored to the sea floor and come back for it later in the afternoon
when it was already exhausted or dead and easier to handle.

When a juvenile small enough to be handled by the team is spotted, it is approached by two fishermen. One hooks a line through
its mouth for towing while the other thrusts a harpoon, (locally known as “isi”), into its vital organs. While the docile creatures can be easily approached, they are dangerous when hurt and some fishermen have reportedly drowned when they were entangled in their own lines and towed to a watery grave by the occasional fish which proved too much for the fishermen to handle. As a result, fishermen avoid adults and focus their efforts in catching the more easily handled and smaller juveniles. An average, full-grown whale shark is reportedly big enough to completely hide a Tamaraw FX placed beside it when viewed from the fish’s opposite side.

Towing the whale shark to Talisayan where it is landed and processed is a slow, arduous two-hour journey for the 16 h.p. pump
boats but eyewitnesses say two-boat teams have been sighted towing as many as five whale sharks at a time. Such reports have led to speculations that the fishermen’s reported average catch of a hundred whale sharks per season may be too low, or had been deliberately understated to minimize unwanted attention on the activity.

So far, Talisayan is the only known municipality in Misamis Oriental where the landing of the whale sharks was tolerated.
Previous attempts in some towns of Camiguin and Misamis Oriental were discontinued after residents complained of the foul odor from the drying meat. In Talisayan itself, landing of the catch is confined to the area between barangays Nabuod and Giwanon, although more fishermen prefer the former because of its deeper waters permitting easier landing of the catch.

A fact-finding team from the Fisheries Division of the Department of Agriculture Region X Office led by Mr. David Ernacio, then
chief agriculturist (now assistant regional director), reported that the principal product derived from thewhale shark is its meat, which can be sold at P4.00/kg. fresh and P30-50/kg. when sun-dried, the latter priced considerably higher not only because it has a ready buyer (who reportedly exports the meat to Japan) but more so because it is a labor-intensive process, requiring the meat to be washed every day after drying for the first three days.

A cured hide from a five-meter juvenile can be sold for up to P11/kg. although there is no ready market for the shark’s oil,
buyers preferring those coming from the tiny dog sharks (locally know as “Lahoy” ) which abound in the area and which is processed into the highly popular cure-all known as “Squalene”.

However, lately fishermen have discovered they can get considerably better prices for the whale shark’s fins. An entire 5-7
kg. set (dried) from an average sized five meter juvenile consisting of two pectoral fins, two dorsal fins, the pelvic, anal, and upper and lower lobe of the caudal fin, can go for as much as P2,000. Overall, an average sized five meter juvenile can bring as much as P15,000 to the six-man team, who have a daily average income of P600 each per day (less expenses) during the “whaling” season.

The DA team of Mr. Ernacio reported that since the industry started way back in the 1950s, it has landed approximately 100
whale sharks per season. Mr.Edgar Cañete of the Region X office of DENR recommended the conduct of a special study covering the whale shark’s biology and other relevant information to assist in the sustainability of this resource both for the fishermen who depend on it for their livelihood and for its tourism potential as a whale watching activity.

Whale watching has already been established as a tourism industry in Pamilakan, Bohol which previously had the country’s only
indigenous “whaling” industry, and which is also most probably why fishermen from that place frequent the waters off Misamis Oriental to hunt the whale sharks during their peak season.

Hopes are high that the Pamilakan, Bohol and Donsol, Sorsogon experience could be replicated in Misamis Oriental. There,
fisherfolk previously engaged in whaling were persuaded to instead organize whale watching tours for tourists which has now gifted them with a much higher level of income for much less effort and risk, to boot. Donsol fisher folk have gone even further and offer “interactive” tours with the “Butanding” with skin divers swimming alongside, touching and even riding the whale sharks.

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