A new study shows that shark tourism, in which people pay to swim with and interact with sharks, may be hampering the species’ capacity to hunt and reproduce.
In a paper published in Scientific Reports, researchers noted that whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) exhibit aberrant behavior patterns in the presence of human tourists, such as quick and zigzag motions consistent with fleeing predators.
They added that ecotourism increases the likelihood of sharks being in a disturbed behavioral state, which likely increases energetic expenditure and may have downstream ecological consequences.
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Disturbed behavior patterns
The researchers examined 39 overhead recordings of whale sharks in Bay of La Paz, Mexico.
Their goal was to see if shark behavior changed in the presence of a swimmer emulating tourist behavior versus sharks swimming in isolation.
When the swimmer was present, the researchers found an increase in disturbed behavior patterns, resulting in the sharks consuming more energy than when swimming alone.
The researchers believe this behavior will make it more difficult for whale sharks to scavenge for food and may potentially harm reproductive success.
“At this stage it is difficult to say exactly how concerning the findings are. The shifts in behavior observed in the presence of humans mean that these sharks are going to be using more energy, and spend less time performing natural foraging behaviors,” study author Joel Gayford of Imperial College London, in the U.K, said in an interview.
Shark tourism poorly understood
While earlier research into the effects of tourism on the species has been conducted, the study concluded that the ecological consequences are not entirely known.
Prior research has discovered that in regions where there is a lot of shark ecotourism, there is sometimes a drop in the number of species found. According to the authors, more research is needed based on these new findings.
The researchers proposed first assessing the shark’s behavioral patterns before allowing swimmers into the water with the creatures.
The study also suggests that regulated distances between tourists and sharks be investigated in order to give animals enough room.
The researchers clarified that they are not saying that ecotourism is harmful to sharks or that it should be prohibited.
They also recognized that ecotourism is vital to shark conservation and will continue to be so in the future.
This also drives the economy as the global shark diving industry is estimated to produce more than $300 million USD per year.
“We are suggesting that the rules and regulations surrounding shark ecotourism should be reviewed regularly, taking into account scientific studies such as this one. Many more studies are required before we will fully understand the ecological implications of shark ecotourism,” Gayford said.
Whale sharks are considered one of the most amazing creatures in the ocean.
They are members of the carpet shark family, and despite their enormous size, they are reputed to be peaceful and pose no harm to humans.
The IUCN has classed the whale shark as endangered. Human-caused hazards to whale sharks include accidental capture in fishing gear, boat strikes, and targeted killing for their fins, skin, and flesh.
Related Article: Whale Shark Sight: How Rhodopsin Evolved for Them To See Through the Years?
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