It covers nearly 14,500 square kilometres and is the largest marine park in southeast Asia, but chances are you've never heard of it. Cendrawasih Bay is a vast seascape that forms part of Papua's Bird's Head Peninsula at the westernmost reaches of New Guinea, the world's second largest island after Greenland. It is of course in large part Cendrawasih's remoteness and low population density that have kept its marine ecosystems in such good shape. But Cendrawasih Bay is opening up to tourism, thanks to the constant presence of the world's biggest fish, the whale shark...Now, the National Park is planning to establish a whale sanctuary as it looks to a future where tourism may play a much more central role in the future of Cendrawasih Bay...
Cendrawasih Bay's whale shark population has developed a mutually beneficial relationship with local fishermen who spend months at a time out on floating fishing platforms called bagan. The whales suck out fish tiny enough to escape the voluminous nets that hang beneath the bagans.
At the same time, they keep other potential predators like sharks at bay. An expedition back in 2011 first came across the behaviour. Now it is a popular attraction, with live aboard boats heading to Cendrawasih in ever larger numbers.
In response to the changing conditions, the Cendrawasih Bay National Park is working with WWF Indonesia to establish a whale sanctuary, in order to ensure that the whale sharks continue to thrive in the area. The challenge is to balance conservation with a nature based approach to tourism, so that the industry actually supports the preservation of the species. "We need to know the factors that are influencing the whale's lives, growth, population, migration, family and connectivity with places and species," said Ben Gurion Saroy who is leading the marine sanctuary project.
One key element in regards to 'connectivity with places and species' is clearly the whales' relationship with the bagan fishers. So called 'feeding aggregations' have long been controversial, with many conservationists worrying about the impacts of feeding on species behaviours, from migration to mating. That's why it's crucial to monitor activities - especially since tourism can quickly eclipse traditional livelihoods as an income generator. That presents an opportunity if managed correctly, or a threat if not. Tourism has increased fourfold from a mere 1700 in 2012, thanks to the publicity generated by the whale sharks.
The new whale sanctuary is expected to open in 2020 and will feature floating shelters out at sea managed by local communities. - most of them between four and five metres in size. Evi Nuri Ihsan, who handles surveillance and monitoring in the area for WWF, said that Cendrawasih Bay's whale shark population is thought to number around 135, most of them male and varying between 4 and 5 metres in size.
Whale sharks are not endangered - but they are listed under CITES Appendix 2. If handled correctly, the new Whale Sanctuary could provide a long term haven for whale sharks, while providing tourists with incredible opportunities to get up close and personal with the world' biggest fish.
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