Poster Session at the American Elasmobranch Society Annual Meeting 2011
An Evaluation of Ecotourism-Based Shark Feeding Practices
Bethan Gillett, George Burgess, and Yannis Papastamatiou
Marine ecotourism businesses offer exhilarating opportunities for millions of people every year, bringing clients in close proximity with wildlife (Miller 1993). With tourists worldwide seeking more extreme and interactive experiences, dives with charismatic megafauna have been growing in popularity in many areas of the world. Shark ecotourism is a booming industry, attracting more than half a million tourists (Topelko and Dearden, 2005) to 267 distinct locations (Cardwell and Watson 2002) around the globe every year. With the growing demand, shark diving charters use chum, bait, or decoys to guarantee sightings of the typically shy and elusive predator (Bres 1993) for their customers. Industry practices differ widely, from tourists observing shark behaviors abroad the deck of a boat, to operators hand feeding sharks with tourist divers in close range. Policy concerning attracting and feeding these marine predators ranges from complete prohibition, such as in the United States and Egypt, to legal indifference, seen with Mexico and Bahamas. South Africa exemplifies a middle ground, with regulation of the industry through a permit system (Dobson 2006). Speculation, opinion, and conjecture are often the basis for debates and lawsuits on the topic. The economic and entertainment attributes of shark ecotourism are undeniable, yet little is understood about the possible biological repercussions of such activity.
Fervent controversy regarding the attracting or feeding these ecologically important predators necessitates the academic review of arguments for stakeholders both in favor of and against shark dive operations. This study evaluates the empirical and observational evidence for biological concerns through a review of in situ studies, captive experiments, and case studies involving sharks, other marine animals, and terrestrial models. Assessment of existing evidence brings proposals for further investigation and suggestions for sustainable industry practices.
This review demonstrates the wide spectrum of possible outcomes, highly dependent on the regularity and degree of supplementary nutrition provided by shark ecotourism operations. Other significant variables include the habitat, behavioral predisposition, life history, and trophic role of the target species. Limiting the amount and frequency of provisioning may minimize the negative impacts. The academic community should further collaborate with existing diving operations in order to quantify the long term outcomes of the industry and support actions to minimize their negative biocentric influences and benefit conservation efforts.