The pros and cons of shark ecotourism

By Stephanie Crawford, Marine Conservation Biology student

Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the tourism industry. It encourages locals to utilize natural resources in a sustainable manner and can promote conservation.  Ecotourism enables people to interact with marine life for money, which is economically important for countries. One strategy for reducing the harvest of vulnerable populations is to use ecotourism to generate revenue from live sharks to help deter population declines. Shark diving can be found in 29 countries, with new destination and target species being established due to the recognition of the economic potential.

Shark ecotourism is popular and controversial – there has been debate based on the risks to human safety, such as associating food with humans, and perceptions of behavioral shifts. Shark diving has local economic benefits and encourages conservation by creating public awareness, but it is argued that ecotourism also has the potential to affect species by altering their natural behavior. Studies have shown that shark diving can have behavioral and ecological impacts on sharks. It is important to assess the impacts of shark ecotourism has on their natural behavior and to determine if it is detrimental to their health.

There have been studies done on the feeding behaviors, depth differences, abundance and habitat use on various species of sharks to see if shark diving has negative impacts on the health and ecology of sharks. There is still limited information on how provisioning sharks in general affects the natural behavior and health of individual sharks. The strong economic incentive to maintain, or even promote, shark related tourism may outweigh the perceived negative effects of provisioning on sharks, especially since there is a lack of strong evidence showing such effects. Studies have shown that it has not been possible yet to determine whether tourism significantly affects sharks health or long-term behavior and further research needs to be done.

Orams, M. (2002). Feeding wildlife as a tourism attraction: a review of issues and impacts Tourism Management, 23 (3), 281-293 DOI: 10.1016/S0261-5177(01)00080-2

Maljković, A., & Côté, I. (2011). Effects of tourism-related provisioning on the trophic signatures and movement patterns of an apex predator, the Caribbean reef shark Biological Conservation, 144 (2), 859-865 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.11.019

Fitzpatrick, R., Abrantes, K., Seymour, J., & Barnett, A. (2011). Variation in depth of whitetip reef sharks: does provisioning ecotourism change their behaviour? Coral Reefs, 30 (3), 569-577 DOI: 10.1007/s00338-011-0769-8

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