Wildlife tourism, including cage diving with white sharks, is growing in popularity, but these industries remain highly controversial among tourists, environmentalists and scientists.
Many voice concerns about possible negative impacts – especially when targeting potentially dangerous animals – while supporters cite socio-economic benefits to justify wildlife tourism activities.
In reality, wildlife tourism is complex, forcing managers to balance the pros and cons to determine what is acceptable for such industries.
To help resolve this question of “is wildlife tourism good or bad?” ”, A tool to help managers assess these industries was created by scientists at Flinders University, Georgia Aquarium and Southern Cross University with help from environmental parks, marine and tourism officials from the South Australian Department of Environment and Water and a veterinarian / university animal welfare officer.
The resulting framework, published in Letters of conservation, uses 26 factors to assess industry traceability, socio-economic values and effects on conservation, animal welfare and ecosystem impacts, explains Research Director Dr Lauren Meyer, from Flinders University Southern Shark Ecology Group and Georgia Aquarium.
The grouping of these five distinct categories into a single framework allows for a more comprehensive assessment, combining the various advantages and disadvantages typical of the wildlife tourism industries.
“The latest study provides an inventory of relevant factors incorporating a range of different industry sectors, current knowledge and research needs,” said Flinders co-author and associate professor Charlie Huveneers.
To put the new framework to the test, the authors applied it to the white shark cage diving industry on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. Here, three operators accommodate up to 10,000 passengers and generate around $ 8 million per year.
The industry is well regulated with limits on the number of licenses, the days they can operate, and the amount of attractant they can use.
Recent research by Dr Meyer has revealed that although food attractants (bait and berley) have no impact on the diet of white sharks (they still swim while eating their normal prey), they can affect the diet of fish. and stingrays that live in these offshore areas. he is.
The framework also made it possible to compare the costs and benefits of white sharks against other fish and rays, revealing the overall acceptability of the industry and identifying key areas for improvement.
The results show that although public opinion varies in favor of cage diving with white sharks, the contribution to education and public awareness and scientific research is high, says Dr Meyer.
“Conservation results for both target and non-target species are high, due to the protected status of the sanctuary area of the Neptune Islands Group Marine Park where the industry operates,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, the industry offers substantial regional economic benefits, but although the effects on the white shark have been well managed, the welfare of fish and rays has been identified as needing further attention.
Associate Professor Charlie Huveneers, who has studied the behavior and ecology of sharks for more than 10 years, including white sharks, says the new framework shows how effective collaboration between scientists, managers and industry will help minimize the negative effects on white sharks, but he also highlighted areas that could still be improved.
Specifically, the framework identified key priorities for future research on biological, socio-economic and cultural heritage, ensuring comprehensive management of a dividing industry.