Whale shark ecotourism is a rapidly growing industry throughout the world. Although conservationists argue that this type of business is “win-win” – providing an alternative to the harvest of these animals by fishermen, and governments with strong economic incentives to protect the vulnerable species – there are some concerns that tourists swimming with the sharks may have negative effects on these animals.
The first multi-year study to investigate this issue suggests that ecotourism – when well-regulated – does not affect whale sharks. According to the research, which was conducted over five years at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, sharks that frequently encounter tourists are just as likely to return to the reef as sharks that only interact with a few humans.
It is felt that this outcome has in part been due to the guidelines for viewing whale sharks issued by the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, which were developed to ensure people “have a safe, enjoyable experience, and to prevent the animals from being harmed or disturbed” (DEC).
Between 1993 and 2011, the number of whale shark tourists at Ningaloo increased rapidly from 1,000 to 17,000 so that today, the industry generates around $6 million each winter season for the region. “Our research shows that the code of conduct used by the Department of Environment and Conservation to protect whale sharks is very effective with no detectable impacts of tourists on their aggregation behaviour at Ningaloo across years,” says lead author Rob Sanzogni, based at the University of Western Australia in Perth and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
“The research, which was funded by Apache Energy Ltd and supported by the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, suggests that Ningaloo’s ecotourism industry, at least in its current form, is ecologically sustainable into the future”, says Dr Mark Meekan, Principal Research Scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and a co-author of the study. He hopes that this research will provide a blueprint for similar work on the impact of ecotourism on marine megafauna such as manta rays and whales on the Australian coast. Meekan notes “We can’t rest here – we need to keep these long-term studies going so that we can ensure that we will have these iconic and spectacular animals to enjoy on our coasts for the foreseeable future”.
Dr Mark Meekan, AIMS Principal Research Scientist, Perth Office. 0429 101 812; (08) 6369 4039; email@example.com
Mr Rob Sanzogni, Oceans Institute, (M470), 35 Stirling Highway Crawley WA 6009; 0413 958 531; (08) 6488 2835; firstname.lastname@example.org
Wendy Ellery, AIMS Media Officer, (07) 4753 4409; 0418 729 265; email@example.com