Dennis Bryan Baitit
Island paradise- that feeling when you spent the whole year dreaming of a place that you keep on staring at your desktop for the whole year. The day dream is over….
In Malapascua, you see the line of the ocean meeting the horizon. The heat of the sun burning your feet while walking in a white sand beach. Or a burst of colours that defines the serenity of the view when the sun sets. Or feel the warmth of the locals while greeting you as you pass by. Witness wild animals in their magnificent display and be amazed by the beautiful life the underwater world has to offer.
Malapascua Island is a small island in the northernmost tip of Cebu, the Philippines. The island is so small that there are no cars, and people travel only by foot, bicycle or a motorbike. It is about 2.5 by 1 kilometres and dotted with gleaming white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and abundant marine biodiversity. Historically, the island’s main source of income is fishing, but due to the discovery of its biggest asset about a decade ago, the island’s economy has dramatically shifted. Resorts, restaurants and dive resorts have mushroomed, and currently the island’s main income comes from tourism. So don’t be fooled by its size – this tiny island is home to one of the country’s biggest treasures: The Thresher Shark (Alopias pelagicus).
The Malapascuan community is faced with many challenges. Abject poverty is commonplace on the island and life expectancy is low. Over the years, fisheries have declined due to illegal fishing practices and commercial fishing has significantly depleted the area’s food resources. Unsustainable fishing practices have become a constant threat to the local tourism economy and food security of the island. This has been a perennial problem, not only in this small community, but also all over the country.
Aside from these human inflicted problems, Malapascua is also faced with natural disasters, since it lies at the tip of Camotes Sea where the three bodies of water (Visayan Sea, Camotes Sea and Tañon Straight) converge, which are almost always in the path of typhoons. The biggest devastation came on November 8, 2013, when typhoon Haiyan hit the southern part of the Philippines. Malapascua looked like a war zone afterwards, where houses turn to rubble and trees are brown. The typhoon made the second landfall on the island, and shanties made of light materials where easily blown. Even the fancy resorts were badly damaged, including boats and other valuable properties. There was debris everywhere, and the people’s cheery disposition was replaced by gloom and uncertainty.
The Thresher Sharks
Thresher sharks reach to about 365 centimeters in length. Its long, trademark tail can account for half of its body size. When they swim, their tails makes them seem so graceful and harmless, but their tails are actually used to whip and stun their prey, such as squid and sardines.
For the people of Malapascua, the thresher shark is not just an ordinary creature but a treasure. The entire island’s economy depends on the presence of the thresher sharks. Life on the island has changed from a simple fishing village to a world-renowned diving destination. Divers and tourists travel thousands of miles just for a chance to see the threshers. Because of the influx of tourist on the island, the income of the community has increased exponentially. Jobs have shifted from fishing to tourism which resulted in an overall increase in the quality of life. The scale of the scuba diving tourism supported by the island is certain to grow in the years to come.
The Thresher Sharks have been a constant blessing to the islanders. In fact, it’s the thresher sharks that came to the rescue right after the typhoon. Divers and tourists from all over the world, who have great memories of the island and its people, have pooled in all the resources they have to give back to the island, the sharks and its people. The local community were able to rebuild faster than any other town affected by the typhoon. So much help came in that rehabilitation efforts had a spill over effect, and nearby communities have benefited from the donations initially directed to Malapascua.
The Shark Spa
Monad Shoal is a seamount rising 250 m from the sea floor (N 11° 19’ 06.7”, E 124° 11’ 31.9”), 8 km due east from Malapascua Island. The top of the mount forms a plateau at 15 meters to 25 meters depth, with a surface area of 4.5 km2. The low profile Acropora coral community is now degraded and dominated by rubble, caused by decades of scuba divers trampling on the reef. Recreational divers visit the seamount to observe thresher sharks and manta rays on most days. In fact it is the only known place in the world that these thresher sharks come in shallow waters almost on a daily basis.
Studies have shown that thresher shark-cleaner fish interaction peaks in the early morning when cleaners’ guts are empty. Therefore the habitat where the cleaners are living is very important and requires much protection.
Project Sharklink, a non-stock non-profit, non-government organization was set up due to the immediate need to arouse, organize and mobilize the local community of the island. A community based-organization that mobilizes local stakeholders for environmental conservation, a collaborative project that aims to conduct socio economic studies, and undertake a collaborative project to define characteristics of cleaning stations that support services for mixed and exclusive elasmobranch clients on Monad Shoal. As a catalyst, Project Sharklink lobbies for policy and its enforcement in the auspices of the town. One of its landmark contributions was the creation of the country’s first shark and ray sanctuary. The organization was also the front line in the campaigns for the protection of the thresher sharks on a national and global scale.
Project Sharklink encourages sustainable management of natural resources, such as freshwater, on the island by all its local and transient inhabitants. These measures are aimed at increasing awareness in the local community of the importance of maintaining these resources in a way that is compatible with the burgeoning development of on-site tourism facilities. Project Sharklink also aims to support its growing tourism industry through supplemental livelihood programmes. These livelihood programmes should empower locals to create a source of income where all profits can be channelled back directly to themselves and benefit their community.
A YES for the Threshers
With the vote of 108 in favor, 29 against, and 5 abstentions, the listing of the thresher sharks on Appendix II of CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna) was adopted during the plenary on October 4, 2016. The parties have agreed to a 12- month delay in the implementation period, the listing of all the three species of thresher sharks on Appendix II means sustainability must be proven before international trade is permitted. Given this listing, thresher sharks are now automatically protected under its Amended Fisheries Code.
This was a great victor not just for the shark but also for the community that thrives to keep them alive. The global protection of these sharks means a generation of food and economic security not just for this small community but also for the entire country.
Heroes of Fortune
Migo sa Iho (Friends of Sharks) is a group of volunteer fishermen, who work tirelessly to protect Malapascua’s marine resources. They are the fish wardens whose motivation goes beyond what they will get after a day’s work. They understand clearly the importance of protecting these resources, to protect it not just because they will get food on their table but also for the generations to come. What started as a bold experiment by a few dive managers and operators to put two guys in a small boat in Monad Shoal at night grew into a full grown community of shark protectors.
In 2014, Save Philippine Seas with the help of Project Sharklink, organized forty-five fishermen as fish wardens for the entire municipality, fifteen of those is from Malapascua Island. They were sanctioned and deputized to legally apprehend illegal poachers by the Local Government Unit and the Bureau of Fisheries. To sustain its operation on the island, the Malapascua Marine Preservation Fund helped in the purchase of 3 floating assets, one is to be stationed in Monad Shoal around the clock, seven days a week and two small boats patrolling around the island. They have countless of apprehensions at sea, even risking their lives by getting shot at by illegal poachers at times.
A Call to Action
Malapascua is a story in itself, its people and its sharks are the main characters. The work on conservation around the island doesn’t stop until every community in the country realizes the importance of its rich marine biodiversity. It is an example of a whole community working together in science, education, and policy implementation. A tiny island that sets as example of a public-private partnership that takes a generation to build with the thresher shark as its common denominator. The locals working together to put environmental and tourism safeguards in place to ensure that we will have tails – and tales – to see for the present and future generations.
Dennis Bryan Bait-it (b. 1983, Philippines) is a certified PADI Dive Instructor and a Dive Resort Operations Manager. He is also a co-founder and the Executive Director of Project Sharklink – a community-based organization that mobilizes stakeholders for environmental conservation. Project Sharklink aims to promote sustainable tourism, environmental education and local law enforcement. It is composed of a multi disciplinary organization that conducts scientific studies, educational programs and community building.
Dennis grew up in a family of visionaries and helping people in need runs in his blood. His grandfather rose from being part of a fish boat crew to owning fleets of fishing boats and other businesses. In doing so, he helped a lot of small fishermen to have their own business and improve their lives. His grandfather’s legacy still lives on in a small town of Cawayan, Masbate.
Growing up beside the ocean, Dennis saw how the bounty of the ocean has been beneficial to his family and how it was exploited over the years. He also saw illegal fishing activities, and the politics behind the rape of the ocean. Hence, he made it his life commitment to protect the ocean. He believes that by protecting the ocean the lives of the people will improve.
He graduated with an AB Sociology degree at the University of San Carlos in Cebu. His graduation thesis is about the “palupad” industry, a mini trawl fishing method that scrapes the ocean floor. The thesis also talks about the environmental implications and contrasting perspectives among residents and the local government unit. After graduation, he worked for numerous archaeological and research assistant jobs in Cebu and Bohol -from cultural heritage conservation to terrestrial and marine environment conservation.
He eventually landed a job in Malapascua Island after collaborating with Divelink Cebu owner Gary Cases in an environmental solutions company. The company strives on the establishment of marine protected areas in the country. When the managerial position was offered to him, he took on the challenge with the vision of improving the facility: a facility offers not only a safe diving education, but that has also the mission to care for and protect the environment. From then on, he was responsible for managing not just the dive operations, but also numerous people’s organization in the island.
He first organized the Malapascua Dive Guides and Boat Crew Association, and later on helped establish “Migo sa Iho” (friends of sharks). The dive guides association, as front liners of the diving industry, makes sure that the rules and regulation to protect the environment are ensured and the friends of sharks guarantees that illegal fishing activities are deterred. With the help of the Malapascua Marine Preservation Fund, a group of dive resort managers and owners, these projects were implemented.
He also crafted various landmark legislations with the help of scientists and non government organizations. One particular legislation was the creation of the first shark and ray sanctuary in the Philippines, in Monad Shoal and Gato Island.
Last year, Dennis was invited to speak for the protection of the thresher sharks at the CoP 17 of CITES, in South Africa. He talked about how the thresher sharks helped the local community of Malapascua recover faster than any other parts of the country after typhoon Haiyan. The world agreed and voted for the three species of thresher sharks to be included in Appendix II.