Shark Ecotourism and it’s Role in Ocean Conservation

How Beneficial is Shark Ecotourism?

 

If you didn’t see the recent photographs of a girl swimming with one of the biggest Great white sharks on record, then where have you been hiding?   Ocean Ramsey is a marine biologist who specialises in shark ethology and along with her team One Ocean Diving, gets up close and personal with sharks.  These photos spread like wildfire across social media, sparking mixed emotions from viewers stunned by the physical contact she had with the shark, but many were overwhelmed by the sheer size and gentle nature of this giant. It is believed the shark is approximately 20 feet long and 8 feet wide and it was spotted feeding off a sperm whale carcass off the coast of Isla Guadalupe in Mexico.  There were previous sightings of Great whites feeding on this same carcass in the days before the photos were taken, including another impressively sized individual well known to scientists called “Deep Blue”.

With the news of these impressive creatures gracing the carcass, people flocked to the location to try and get a glimpse of the unidentified shark.  The shark was not the only species feeding on the carcass, with many other species including tiger sharks and dolphins using it as an important food source and the influx of humans would have an impact on the feeding behaviour of all involved, quite possibly scaring animals away from the carcass.  Not only this, Ocean Ramsey’s photos have had some backlash from other marine biologists that say although she is attempting to raise awareness that these are simply gentle giants that have an extremely important role to play in marine ecosystems, she is spreading the wrong message by making physical contact with the shark, something that is looked down upon in the marine science industry and at the same time also encourages others on social media to do the same.

I am not here to argue the case of whether she should have touched the shark or not, but more to take a closer look at the role that sharks can play in the conservation of their own, and on a much larger scale, the ocean.  Shark’s have forever been portrayed as vicious man-eaters and because of this perception, humans have sought to reduce their numbers year after year.  To be specific, between 70-100 million individual sharks are killed each year by people.  Not only do they purposely get hunted and slaughtered in various parts of the world, a shocking and uneducated attempt at reducing or eradicating a population, but they are also specifically targeted as a food source and their fins are used in one of the most sickening delicacies across Asia, shark fin soup.  The history of their portrayal in the media could not be any more wrong.  They are some of the planets most evolutionary advanced species that have survived millions and millions of years and could not be any more perfectly adapted to their natural environment.  Their “man-eater” label is a result of irrational hype stemming from media sources and the film industry, when in fact attacks on humans are very few and far between – more people are killed each year by coconuts than sharks.

 

A Black tip reef shark, beautifully photographed by Shark Guardian Ambassador Steve Woods

 

A New Era of Sustainable Choices

In recent years, the popularity of eco-tourism has increased rapidly.  With a generation of individuals aware that their choices have direct and indirect consequences on the environment and the species that inhabit it, many more tourists and adventurers are turning to eco-tourism options when planning a holiday or activity.  Ecotourism is a form of tourism which is intended to be environmentally low impact, sustainable and expected to aid the protection and conservation of the said environment and its community.

Thanks to the online world, many destinations offering ecotourism opportunities have become popular and continue to grow and become the preferred choice of many travelers.  That said, there is a balance to be maintained and if this balance fails, then it possibly defeats the initial purpose and objective, which is of course conservation.  From Borneo to Botswana, Alaska to Antarctica, the Amazon rainforest the Galapagos Islands, there are some extremely biodiverse locations that are becoming the home to various types of eco-tourism.

Looking specifically at marine ecotourism, it has become an option that many coastal communities have turned to, upon realising that the oceans ability to adapt to the pressures that it faces, such as overfishing, habitat degradation and destruction, has been surpassed.  They are looking to use the ocean’s resources in another way.  In Mexico, marine eco-tourism brings almost 1 million visitors and generates over $500,000,000 in local income, presenting itself as a truly viable way of sustainably supporting the economy of coastal communities and providing an alternative to fisheries.  And there are many other locations around the world that see this possibility too.  Grey whales were almost pushed to extinction over the last one hundred years due to the hunting of its blubber for use as oil and thanks to eco-tourism projects in Baja California, the population has recovered immensely and whale watching in these sanctuaries brings over $6,000,000 per year.

So, How Can Sharks Help Protect the Ocean?

Sharks are apex predators that keep the ecosystem in balance.  From cleaning up large deceased creatures like the one Ocean Ramsey swam with, to keeping populations and health of smaller prey fish species below them in the food chain in check, they are important indicators of the state of the ocean.  Shark species have an indirect effect on seagrass and coral reef habitats also, by shifting their prey’s spatial habitat and therefore altering the feeding behaviour and diets of other species.  A shark’s presence is felt through to the bottom of the food chain, and of course, this works the other way, their absence is also felt throughout.

Removing sharks from coral reef ecosystems, for example, means that the large predatory fish lose their predator, resulting in an increase in abundance and a higher amount of feeding on the herbivorous species of fish.  This pressure on the herbivorous fish species reduces their population to the point where the macroalgae is left to expand across the reef, out-competing the coral and thus causing a detrimental effect on the overall survival of the reef.

The over-exploitation of sharks and the sheer disrespect towards them has been noted and many countries now legally protect sharks, at both local and national levels.  However, although they may be legally protected, there are still some laws that have loopholes in legislation that fishermen can get around.  But awareness is raising and citizens across the globe have been involved in pushing local protection measures to ensure that species are protected.  Many species of shark are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the demand for shark fin is, fortunately, on the decline.

Using Sharks to Build Ecotourism

Using sharks as a focal species to build eco-tourism projects is something that is not uncommon.  Many Scuba divers and snorkelers flock to locations where sharks are abundant, looking for that once in a lifetime opportunity to dive with these prehistoric beauties.  Sharks are worth more alive than they are dead and local communities are beginning to realise this and utilise methods to generate an income from this alternative marine resource.  An individual live reef shark is worth $250,000 thanks to dive tourism.  Compare that to its $50 price tag as a dead individual and it’s difficult to see why sharks are still being fished.  Take Whale sharks for example – they are the largest shark species in the world and the global Whale shark tourism value is over $40 million per year.  In Thailand alone, Whale sharks bring in an approximate $2-3 million per year.  On an annual basis, shark ecotourism brings in $314 million worldwide and this number is expected to increase over the next 20 years to $700 million.    That is, as long as the balance is maintained.

 

A shark species that people flock to specific locations to see. Whale sharks are a shark that can be seen at some of Thailands dive sites. Photo Credit: Shark Guardian

 

Elisabeth Lauwerys of Oceans Below, an award-winning professional underwater video production company based on Koh Tao in Thailand, has had the opportunity to dive with sharks on many occasions.  She believes that the shark diving industry is incredibly important for shark conservation as well as having huge socio-economic benefits.  “Sharks are very shy and in most cases are likely to avoid you. In certain places in the world we are extremely lucky to have opportunities of witnessing natural behavior from afar without having to attract them,” she says “At most other shark locations around the world, the sharks need to be attracted to a vessel or by bait in order to see them. If this is not the case, you will simply not see a shark.”  Elisabeth also believes that by giving people the opportunity to get up close and personal with sharks and spend time with them, it helps them become passionate about them, and she says “we all know that we protect what we love…”.  I have to agree with her.  By witnessing something as impactful as swimming or diving with sharks, you instantly feel more connected to the cause and it is experiences like these that eventually lead to actions and create behavioural change.

 

Photo by Elisabeth Lauwerys at Oceans Below
Just one of the sharks Elisabeth has dived with – a captivating Hammerhead in the Bahamas.  Photo Credit: Elisabeth Lauwerys, Oceans Below.

 

A great infographic taken from Shark Business

There are certainly pros and cons to shark ecotourism and any ecotourism project involving sharks should be closely managed and employ measures that prevent the fragile balance from being lost.   Shark diving has local economic benefits and helps increase public awareness thus increasing their conservation, however, it can affect their natural behaviour.  Assessing the impact of shark ecotourism is a focal point of many marine scientists and studies are being conducted which look at changes in feeding behaviour, habitat use and depth differences.  According to a recent study, altering the feeding behaviour could also have much more detrimental and impacts that are much more difficult to observe.  The distribution of a shark’s energy necessary for growth and reproduction is important, yet if the activity rate of the shark increases during times when it is being fed by humans in an unnatural manner and interrupts resting periods then the energy allocation could be disrupted and therefore affect the overall health and reproductive ability of the shark.

It has also been argued that the effectiveness of shark ecotourism programmes is limited due to an effect known as the “ceiling effect”.  The participants that are attracted to these kinds of programmes are already environmentally minded, questioning the conservation gains.  I suppose it is like preaching to the choir.  Is diving or snorkeling with sharks likely to attract individuals that are not environmentally aware?  Are people that are seeking out these programmes already experienced divers aware of the struggle sharks face?  Either way, divers will travel to parts of the world where their chances of seeing sharks and other Mega Fauna are likely.  Bredon Sing, Director of Shark Guardian (UK Charity for Shark and Marine Conservation Projects Worldwide), says “”The future of the dive industry by attracting divers for the quality of marine diversity and healthy shark populations, together with other pelagic animals, is only limited by government motivation and willingness to honestly protect their natural resources, marine parks and working towards establishing shark sanctuaries”.  He also states that there are more marine protected areas and shark sanctuaries than 5 years ago and the increase in shark populations in these areas attracts divers from around the world thus benefiting local communities.

 

Sharks such as White tip reef sharks are relatively common, but sightings have decreased over recent years.

 

There is still limited information on the truth behind the impacts shark ecotourism has on the species.  One thing is for certain though, with the protection of marine areas difficult to initiate and manage due to national borders and differing political legislation, shark ecotourism could be a method of conserving an apex species whose protection can help maintain the health of the global oceans.  It is an alternative income for coastal communities in many different places that could lead to the creation of international agreements between countries, sanctuaries and Marine Protected Areas (MAP’s) across borders.  The balance of commercial and environmental needs must be addressed and the business models for these programmes must take into full account the true sustainability and need for low impact on the species and its habitat.

For more information on how you can get involved in shark conservation, visit Shark Guardian and find out how you can help protect them!