Tazi Phillips, Global Animal

A debate has recently ensued in the Philippines over whether whale sharks should be fed by people. The giant whale sharks begging for food have left marine biologists and environmentalists worried that the sharks may become dependent on handouts from tourists. 

A whale shark feeding on plankton in Mexico. Photo credit: Getty Images

While feeding wild animals might allow closer contact, providing wildlife with a steady, human-supplied food source almost always results in problems for both animals and humans.

Fishermen in Oslob in the central resort island of Cebu have been feeding whale sharks with baby shrimp since the 1980s. The feedings cause the creatures to rise to the surface of the water for the amusement of tourists.

According to Discovery News, Mayor Guaren of the coastal town of Oslob insists that the practice of feeding the whale sharks does no harm and is good for tourism, but Edmundo Arregadas, regional head of the coastal marine management division, believes otherwise.

“We told them it might have a negative effect on the natural way of life of the whale shark,” he said. “They are feeding it so they can have more tourists. But whale sharks are now used to the feeding act.”

By expecting food, whale sharks might be putting themselves in danger. Getting comfortable around boats and people could cause the sharks to approach other boats and risk colliding with them, or their propellers. They also might be more vulnerable to poachers who might catch and kill them. Changes in reproduction rates and health issues related to the type and amount of food could also arise. 

Discovery News reported Mayor Guaren saying that the local government is regulating the feeding. A small number of boatmen feed the whale sharks in a designated area only in the mornings, and are required to use rowing boats and keep their distance to avoid hurting the fish with their propellers or in collisions. Tourists are also barred from feeding or swimming with the whale sharks. Regardless, feeding wild animals in general does more harm than good, and should never be done for our own personal amusement.

Another case of a marine wildlife feeding gone wrong happened in Egypt in 2010 when four tourists were attacked by a mako shark in the Red Sea, causing one death. The timing and location of three attacks in a week off Sharm el-Sheikh pointed to shark feeding, which is banned in Egypt.

Wildlife interaction is risky business, and as we increase contact with wild animals and explore their environments, cases of accidents are bound to rise. Being fed by humans commonly results in wild animals losing their fear of people, but an instinctive wariness of people is important to their survival and the health and happiness of both humans and wild animals.