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JOURNAL ARTICLE

Learning from a provisioning site: code of conduct compliance and behaviour of whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu, Philippines

Anna Schleimer, Gonzalo Araujo, Luke Penketh, Anna Heath, Emer McCoy, Jessica Labaja, Anna Lucey, Alessandro Ponzo
PeerJ 2015, 3: e1452
26644984
While shark-based tourism is a rapidly growing global industry, there is ongoing controversy about the effects of provisioning on the target species. This study investigated the effect of feeding on whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) at a provisioning site in Oslob, Cebu, in terms of arrival time, avoidance and feeding behaviour using photo-identification and focal follows. Additionally, compliance to the code of conduct in place was monitored to assess tourism pressure on the whale sharks. Newly identified sharks gradually arrived earlier to the provisioning site after their initial sighting, indicating that the animals learn to associate the site with food rewards. Whale sharks with a long resighting history showed anticipatory behaviour and were recorded at the site on average 5 min after the arrival of feeder boats. Results from a generalised linear mixed model indicated that animals with a longer resighting history were less likely to show avoidance behaviour to touches or boat contact. Similarly, sequential data on feeding behaviour was modelled using a generalised estimating equations approach, which suggested that experienced whale sharks were more likely to display vertical feeding behaviour. It was proposed that the continuous source of food provides a strong incentive for the modification of behaviours, i.e., learning, through conditioning. Whale sharks are large opportunistic filter feeders in a mainly oligotrophic environment, where the ability to use novel food sources by modifying their behaviour could be of great advantage. Non-compliance to the code of conduct in terms of minimum distance to the shark (2 m) increased from 79% in 2012 to 97% in 2014, suggesting a high tourism pressure on the whale sharks in Oslob. The long-term effects of the observed behavioural modifications along with the high tourism pressure remain unknown. However, management plans are traditionally based on the precautionary principle, which aims to take preventive actions even if data on cause and effect are still inconclusive. Hence, an improved enforcement of the code of conduct coupled with a reduction in the conditioning of the whale sharks through provisioning were proposed to minimise the impacts on whale sharks in Oslob.

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