Save The Whale Sharks!

The federal government is trying
BY: LACEY STORER

The federal government is implementing new measures and changes in regulations in a robust effort to protect and preserve the whale sharks who make their home in the Bay of La Paz.

Whale shark tours have exploded in popularity within the past five years, to the point that they are now one of the main reasons people visit La Paz. The only attraction more popular is swimming with sea lions on the island of Espiritu Santo. La Paz is unique in that the whale sharks are only about 15 or so minutes off the bay; tourists don’t have to trek to a remote location to see them.

whale_0.JPGBut while the tourism and attention is great for La Paz, it’s not so great for the animals. According to Semarnat (Mexico’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources), 56% of the whale sharks in the bay have some kind of injury from boats. Making matters worse is the fact that whale sharks are listed as “vulnerable” by the World Wildlife Federation; vulnerable is one step below endangered and indicates that the animals face a high risk of extinction in the wild.

There are currently regulations in place to protect the whale sharks. Boats are only allowed to go out during the official whale shark season, they must stay within the designated whale shark watching zones and can only come within a certain distance from the animals. Swimmers must not touch the animals, must swim along their sides and not in front of them, and keep a minimum distance of 16 feet from the animal’s head and 20 feet from ‌tail. It’s also forbidden to take pictures with flash and to use propulsion engines to swim near the whale sharks.

Of course, there are always people who are willing to break the rules. There are panga owners who take groups out even though they don’t have a permit and/or go out during the off season when they’re not supposed to. They get too close to the animals and don’t instruct their passengers not to get too close or not to touch the whale sharks. They let too many people into the water at one time (the law states no more than six).

And although there is also a law that boats have to take turns letting their passengers into the water, so as not to have too many people crowding around the whale sharks and making them anxious, some captains simply ignore it. They just drive their boats right up and let their people splash into the water.

To combat all of this, Semarnat has made several changes. For starters, the official whale shark season has been reduced from 11 months (July to May) to seven months (October to May) in order to give the whales some resting time when they’re not being harassed by eager tourists.

Semarnat will also be charging a fee to tour providers to pay for rangers who will monitor the bay and make sure the boats that are in the whale shark watching areas are approved to be there. They’re also working with Pronatura, Mexico’s largest environmental conservation group, to place a high-resolution camera in El Mogote – the large sand bar that frames the bay –  that can capture images from nine miles away. This will let rangers monitor the boats going out on tours in real time, and help them to stop bad boating behavior, such as getting too close to the whale sharks, as it’s happening.

“It’s better for us to pay for the rangers to watch that area and protect the whale sharks and make sure the people out there are responsible,” says Terry Neal, owner of Island Cat, one of the tour providers in Cabo that offers whale shark watching tours. “Otherwise, we’re going to kill them off and ruin another part of our business.”

But perhaps the biggest change is in the whale shark tour permits. For starters, Semarnat is reducing the number of permits given from more than 100 to 85. They’re also requiring more training. Training courses are now two days instead of one, and three people from each tour company have to go through the training: the business owner, the boat captain and a guide. Before, only one person from each company had to go through training. The new training courses for the business owners have finished, but so far no dates have been set for the training for captains and guides.

According to Semarnat, there were 110 applicants for the classes. Terry’s assistant, Christine, arrived 30 minutes early to sign up and there were already more than 100 people waiting; some had slept there that night in order to get entry into the classes. Christine stood in line for eight hours in 100 degree weather just to get permission to take the class.

Once the training has been complete, tour providers can apply for a permit. But the training is only one requirement; they must also present a management plan and have experience. And with the decrease in permits being given out this year, a permit isn’t guaranteed just because a company completed training. Neal says special consideration will be given to people who’ve received permits in the past and have shown that they follow the regulations.

Hopefully, these changes and new permit requirements will help weed out the boat owners who aren’t properly trained or licensed and care more about taking money from tourists than keeping the animals safe. At the very least, it’s a step in the right direction.