According to a study, shark tourism – where people pay to swim and have close encounters with the animals – could be hampering the species’ ability to hunt and reproduce.
Whale sharks are a slow-moving species of carpet shark known for its gentle nature. For this reason, as well as their impressive size and appearance, whale shark tourism is popular around the world, especially in Mexico and Australia.
The species is important to the ocean ecosystem. However, their population has been declining in recent years.
A study published in Scientific Reports found that human interactions with whale sharks could harm them.
“At this point, it’s hard to say exactly how concerning the results are. The behavioral changes observed in the presence of humans mean that these sharks will use more energy and spend less time engaging in natural behaviors of foraging,” said the study’s author. Joel Gayford, from Imperial College London, UK, said News week.
“While whale sharks congregate in these areas specifically to feed and build up energy stores, disrupted feeding during this time can have important consequences for later movement patterns. Future studies will of course be needed.”
To assess the effect on the species, the scientists, led by Gayford and his colleagues, sought to see if the behavior of sharks changed when a swimmer, mimicking the movements of a tourist, entered the water of the Bay of La Paz, Mexico.
A total of 20 videos were analyzed with a swimmer, compared to 19 videos taken with sharks swimming alone.
Overall, the sharks exhibited an increase in disturbed behaviors when a swimmer was in the water.
Whale sharks appeared to move in rapid, zigzagging motions, similar to when the species tries to avoid predators, the study notes. It was clear that when a swimmer was present, the whale sharks consumed more energy due to the disturbance.
Scientists believe these conditions make it more difficult for whale sharks to find food. This behavior can also hinder reproductive success, according to the study.
“Whale sharks feed on plankton and as such play an important role in regulating the abundance of many other species, both plankton and other species that depend on this food source,” said said Gayford.
“In addition, whale sharks are migratory and contribute to the transfer of nutrients between different ecosystems. If the disturbed behavior observed in this study alters the distribution or movement patterns of whale sharks, or their abundance in specific areas, the potential impacts extend well beyond the whale sharks themselves to all marine ecosystems.
Although there have been previous studies on the effects of tourism on the species, the ecological impacts are not fully understood, the study notes.
Previous research has shown that in areas where shark ecotourism is significant, there has sometimes been a decrease in the number of species found. Based on these new findings, the authors say this needs further investigation.
They suggested that the shark’s behaviors should be assessed first, before swimmers are allowed to enter the water with the animals.
The study also recommends monitoring the regulated distances between the tourist and the shark, in order to allow enough space for the species.
“We are not claiming that ecotourism is bad for sharks, or that it should be stopped. Ecotourism plays an important role in shark conservation and will continue to do so in the future,” Gayford said.
“We rather suggest that the rules and regulations surrounding ecotourism with sharks be reviewed regularly, taking into account scientific studies such as this. Many more studies are needed before the ecological implications of ecotourism are fully understood. with the sharks.”
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