Shark-Diving Tourism: Concerns And Challenges
Shark-diving tourism is getting increasingly popular and reaching levels that may merit further attention. Back in 2012, approximately 590,000 people engaged in shark-diving, in over 20 countries worldwide. It’s generally seen as a positive practice on a socio-economic level, allowing local economies to draw an income from sharks without killing them or consuming them; conventional wisdom also holds that it may engender a positive conservation ethic within tourists and encourage advocacy for shark protective measures as well.
Still, the ecological and animal welfare effects of the practice are not yet fully understood, and it’s a growing field of scholarship. This paper, laid out as a type of “open letter” to researchers and policy-makers of shark-diving, focusing on recent developments and perspectives, and using shark-diving with white sharks and whale sharks as a case study. They differ in a few ways, most notably in that white shark diving is generally done with a surface cage and bait, while whale shark diving involves surface swimming with snorkels.
Their review covered animal welfare concerns, ecological interactions, fitness, and public safety. Of most interest to animal advocates is the section on animal welfare, which notes that most shark-diving operations set out some guidelines for tourists, a kind of animal welfare code of conduct. While many of those guidelines include specific rules against touching sharks, or maintaining a certain distance from them, compliance with those rules varies: one study from the Philippines found an 80% compliance rate with a no-touching rule, another study found a 97% non-compliance rate with a minimum distance rule. Yet another review from Mexico found that 23% of the tourists made contact with sharks despite being told not to.
After outlining animal welfare concerns, the authors delve into the environmental impacts. They note that the field is a “wide open” area of study and cite many examples where shark-diving can affect other community-level species: a study in New Zealand found that habitat use and residency of smooth stingrays was affected; a study from the Bahamas showed that once a shark-diving site was established, other sharks began to frequent the area; meanwhile, various studies show that schooling fishes may be attracted to shark-diving areas due to the stationary chum used as bait.
For animal advocates, the animal welfare and environmental concerns are likely the most relevant to advocacy, and based on key takeaways, there are a range of things that need improvement. While shark-diving may be infinitely better than a burgeoning shark-finning industry, improving the way it functions so that sharks are as undisturbed is possible is crucial. The authors note astutely that “issues, challenges, and incidents are likely to always pose a threat to an industry formed on the premise of putting people and large ocean consumers next to each other.” While shark-diving exists, however, such issues and challenges will need to be monitored and addressed.