In celebration of International Whale Shark Day, which is August 30…
I’ve posted previously about ecotourism ventures focused on iconic marine species such as sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles and how such ventures can be linked to protection of the species involved. From a natural capital valuation standpoint, the link is based on the recognition that the revenue generated from wildlife tourism associated with the animals far exceeds the revenue that would be earned from their capture for meat and/or body parts. In a nutshell – they are worth more alive than dead!
One species that has been the focus of wildlife tourism in various parts of the world is the whale shark. The largest fish in the sea, whale sharks grow up to 40 feet in length and more than 45,000 pounds in weight. They are docile creatures, frequently encountered on the surface and close to coastal areas. Moreover, they have a propensity to gather regularly in specific locations at various times of the year. This predictability and accessibility has fostered development of whale shark tourism industries in Australia, Belize, Honduras, the Philippines, Maldives, Mexico, Mozambique and the Seychelles.
In each of these locations, visitors are offered the “once in a lifetime” experience of swimming with these magnificent animals. Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to experience this personally while on a visit to Belize. Words can barely describe the awe of having a school-bus sized creature swim by me so closely that its tail brushed my arm, and then slowly cruise below me for several minutes.
As was the case with another shark dive experience last year, the whale shark encounter in Belize prompted me to do some research into the associated ecotourism industry and its role in protecting the species.
The good news is that recognition of the value of whale shark tourism has led to an increase in research and to a greater understanding of the habits, population size and migration patterns of the species. Very little was known about whale shark biology prior to development of the associated tourism industry in Western Australia in the late 1980s. Indeed, marine scientists previously believed that whale sharks were solitary animals found only in the open seas. The finding that they gather close to shore in fixed locations at certain times of the year allowed closer study as well as the opportunity for development of the tourism industry. The associated value is quite substantial. A recent study of the whale shark tourism industry in the Maldives calculated direct expenditures at about $8.5 million per year. Older data from Australia and Belize calculated the value at $4.5 million and $3.7 million per year, respectively.
The increased understanding of whale shark biology and recognition of their tourism value has also helped to prompt greater protection of the species. Whale sharks have been on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species since 1990 and were added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2002.
However, despite legal protection, whale sharks are still hunted, on a commercial level, for their meat and fins in China, Taiwan, and (to a lesser extent) India, and on an artisanal level in the Philippines, Oman, and elsewhere. Evidence of this was brought home starkly by a horrific video that circulated on the internet shortly after my encounter in Belize. The video shows an adult whale shark being butchered alive in Southern China. A large group of onlookers stand by, some shooting selfies, as fishermen carve the still breathing animal into steaks. This follows revelations last year by a Hong Kong-based NGO http://www.wildliferisk.org/china-whale-sharks/ that a factory in Southern China is illegally processing about 600 whale sharks (as well as basking sharks and great white sharks) per year for their fins, meat, and oil from their livers.
While tourism offers an alternative, non-consumptive, revenue generation value for whale sharks, it is not without its downside. Unlike other types of shark dive tourism which are limited to small groups of visitors and require SCUBA certification, whale shark encounters are accessible to much larger groups and require no special skills or training. In some areas, this has led to development of the industry in ways that are both unsustainable and harmful to the animals. This is most evident in the Yucatan, in Mexico, which is the site of the largest aggregation of whale sharks anywhere in the world, with upwards of 300 sharks appearing on some days. This large aggregation, which is readily accessible from nearby Cancun, has led to an explosion in the number of tour operators offering whale shark excursions, with the number of boats vastly outnumbering the whale sharks on some days. The intense competition and lack of adequate regulation has led to a situation where tour operators routinely ignore good practice guidelines for animal interaction. As evidence of this negligence, most of the whale sharks in the area are said to exhibit scars from propeller strikes, almost certainly stemming from contact with tour boats (click here for an eloquent blog by whale shark expert Alistair Dove, from the Georgia Aquarium, regarding the precarious nature of the whale shark tourism industry in Mexico and the need for better regulation).
Let’s hope that Mexico, the Maldives and other countries will take a page out of Western Australia’s book on how to sustainably develop and manage a whale shark tourism industry. Through a combination of licensing of operators, voluntary codes of conduct, and attention to educating visitors about proper behavior during encounters, the industry off Ningaloo Reef is not only sustainable, but contributes to whale shark protection and conservation by enlisting visitors as citizen scientists to collect data on numbers and movements of the sharks in the area.