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Whale shark tourism in Gorontalo: MARECO x Mataram University

by Dr Gonzalo Araujo, Director, MARECO

Following a successful partnership trip with Master Liveaboards back in March through Eastern Indonesia (read our blog here), we headed to Gorontalo in Sulawesi to meet our colleagues and collaborators from Mataram University (UNRAM) led by Mahardika Himawan – a marine scientist with whom I’ve worked with for years on whale shark projects – and from the Tourism Office, Bone Bolango Regency, Gorontalo Province (TOGO) led by Iman Tilahunga, and in partnership with Makassar Coastal and Marine Resources Management Centre (BPSPL) MMAF and the local community of Botubarani. We signed a long-standing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with UNRAM to develop collaborating projects together to improve our understanding and management of shark and ray species.

Signing a MARECO x UNRAM Memorandum of Understanding ©Wiwid A. Lestariningsih.

Gorontalo in an important agricultural province in Sulawesi, and the development of whale shark tourism happened relatively quickly. A shrimp processing factory operated out of the village of Botubarani where discards from the process were discarded at sea. This started to attract whale sharks in 2016, and it quickly developed into a provisioned tourism site (we broadly use the term provisioning for any form of 'attractant' used to facilitate interactions with marine species - see this paper for details). With a peak of ~10,000 tourists annually, it became an opportunity for locals to profit from this developing tourism attraction. A local monitoring programme was established early on to understand the demographics of whale sharks visiting Gorontalo, including size, sex and abundance. No study however, had looked into the potential impact of the tourism activities on the whale sharks themselves.

Ollie feeding two whale sharks in Botubarani, Gorontalo, Sulawesi.

Working together with UNRAM and the Gorontalo Tourism Office, we aim to measure how the tourism activities might affect whale shark behaviour and energetics. To do so, we are employing cost-effective multi-sensory tags that can measure depth, temperature and 3-axial acceleration. We mount these tags on removable clamps that we can leave on the sharks for a pre-determined number of days before removing the tags and downloading the data. We will use these data to estimate metabolic rates as well as to apply bioenergetic models. Coupled with daily monitoring through photographic identification at the site, we will gauge what the changes to these physiological measures is and whether it warrants improved/adapted management of the tourism activities in Gorontalo.

Pak Iman attaching a multi-sensory tag on a whale shark in Gorontalo.

Provisioning wildlife is a contentious issue that requires research and debate, especially when dealing with Endangered and protected species such as the whale shark. I've spent over a decade working with shark provisioning case studies, and whilst it might be easy to say 'it's bad' or 'it's good' the reality is always more complex, and all stakeholders needs need to be taken into consideration. The objective of our work in Gorontalo is exactly that: to consider all stakeholder needs and develop or adapt management plans accordingly.

UNRAM Lecturer Mahardika 'Dika' Himawan taking a photographic identification of a whale shark in Gorontalo.

"This research into the behaviour of whale sharks in Gorontalo waters, Indonesia, using accelerometer tags is a great innovative approach to understand the impacts of the tourism activities there. UNRAM, working with Makassar Coastal and Marine Resources Management Centre (BPSPL) MMAF, the Tourism Office of Bone Bolango District, Gorontalo Province, and MARECO will continue the tagging work through 2023. This project will be helpful to support management of the site" says Mahardika Himawan, Lecturer and research scientist at Mataram University (UNRAM).

As part of this collaboration with UNRAM, we will provide opportunities for local students to get hands-on, world-leading shark research experience which have a lot of transferable skills across the marine and biological sciences sector. Our collaboration with UNRAM will extend to other sites and species over the coming years, and we look forwards to a fruitful partnership! We'd like to thank our ongoing donors and sponsors, including Protect What You Love and Master Liveaboards, who are supporting our important work.

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