About two years ago a whole nation was stunned after experiencing the strongest typhoon to ever make landfall. Super Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda as the locals called her, passed over the Philippines on November 8, 2013. Its path of destruction left thousands dead and millions homeless, changing lives forever.

Since then, many of those affected have been struggling to resume their lives and continue their livelihoods. Over the past year the support from the rest of the world has been enormous, but even with all this help, it has been very hard for people and economies in the Philippines to recover.

Resilience from Monad Shoal

One place that did manage to rebuild quickly is Malapascua Island, even though most houses and boats were reduced to rubble after the super typhoon passed. Just one year later many locals have managed to pick up their lives and thrive once again. Part of the reason for this rapid recovery can be found in an unusual place just nine kilometres offshore, at a submerged seamount called Monad Shoal.

Monad Shoal is a place like no other. Every morning at dusk, pelagic thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus) come up to the shallower parts of this shoal. Divers from all over the world visit this place in the hope of seeing these graceful sharks with their distinct scythe-like tails. These nocturnal oceanic sharks come here for one reason only, to be cleaned by cleaner fish like the cleaner and moon wrasses (Labriodes dimidiatus and Thalassoma lunare) that inhabit the multiple cleaning stations found at Monad Shoal. Nowhere else in the world can you reliably see thresher sharks on a daily basis and observe them up close. It’s exactly this phenomenon that makes Malapascua famous, and eco-tourism based around these sharks has played a major role in the island’s recovery.

A few days after Typhoon Haiyan, Malapascua had already received huge support from the local dive industry and tourists who were in love with the island. One year later almost everyone has managed to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. Some locals even say they have better homes now than they did before the typhoon. Tourists are still coming to see the pelagic thresher sharks, which, considering that 80 percent of income on Malapascua is directly related to this industry, means that Malapascua’s economy is stable.

Sustainable thresher-based tourism is proving that sharks are worth vastly  more alive than dead.

Sustainable thresher-based tourism is proving that sharks are worth vastly more alive than dead.

Threshers under pressure

In 2002 Monad Shoal was declared as a marine reserve. While this was a step in the right direction, it hasn’t been able to stop illegal fishing – even today Monad Shoal still falls victim to destructive methods like dynamite and longline fishing. The income derived from tourism and the associated marine park fees don’t trickle down to all the fishermen who use these places. Furthermore, in the Philippines thresher sharks are still directly targeted and caught as by-catch on a regular basis. It’s sad that within the same country these sharks are both adored and killed. Currently thresher sharks are not a protected species in the Philippines.

According to the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation project, the value of one live thresher shark per day at Monad Shoal can be in excess of USD 135,000 per year. This same shark at a local fish market would only sell for USD 180. The meat sells for two to three and a half US dollars a kilo while the fins can go for as much as USD 22 per kilo, still only a fraction of what the sharks are worth alive.

Currently all three species of thresher sharks (bigeye, common and pelagic) are listed as “Vulnerable” according to IUCN’s Red List. This means if no active measures are taken to protect them, considering that they are one of the global shark fisheries’ most in-demand species, their status will quickly deteriorate to “Endangered” or worse. As these sharks are pelagic in nature, protecting them in just one place like Monad Shoal is a good start but won’t do much in the long run since they can still be caught while travelling out of protected waters. To make sure thresher sharks (and tourism in places like Malapascua) survive, broader protection is necessary. All thresher sharks are prone to unsustainable fisheries and by-catch, and with their low fecundity (two to four pups per litter) and long gestation period, their populations can decline quickly. In most places thresher shark populations are already down by more then 75 percent when compared to the 1980s.

A community mobilised: With threshers still on the IUCN Red, community-driven conservation and enforcement is key to ensuring their survival.

A community mobilised: With threshers still on the IUCN Red, community-driven conservation and enforcement is key to ensuring their survival.

One for all

It does seem like things are moving in the right direction in the Philippines. People are slowly becoming aware of the fact that sharks are essential in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems and are worth more alive than dead.

Since September 2014 the province of Cebu amended an ordinance that protects various marine resources to now include the protection of all shark species. While this is only applicable in one province, it’s certainly an encouraging sign.

Enabling fishermen to tap into the shark tourism economy will be the real challenge, as, without an alternative income, it’s hard to stop people from fishing when they rely on it for their livelihoods. It is possible though – in Malapascua many of the boatmen and even dive guides used to be fishermen. Tourism on the island is going strong, the sharks’ popularity is still growing and the associated industry is providing ever more jobs. Shark tourism has proven to be a viable conservation tool and a profitable business.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia published a paper in 2013 that estimates global shark ecotourism brings in USD 314 million annually and is expected to more than double in the next 20 years. If this is the case then it would exceed the current profit made by shark fisheries.

Monad Shoal serves as a great example for shark tourism and has proven to be invaluable in ways no one could have foreseen. Hopefully this success will continue to inspire people and governments to protect rather than exploit this important species, so that for many generations to come people can enjoy the magic of encountering one underwater.

This article was made possible with the help of the Shark Foundation www.shark.ch and featured in Scuba Diver AUSTRALASIA (Issue 07/2014)