From Table to Tour Boat: How Our Perception of Large Marine Animals Has Changed Over Time

Whether they elicit feelings of awe, admiration, or fear, there’s just something fascinating about large animals. In the Western world, large marine animals (or marine megafauna as scientists call them) have experienced a polarizing shift in how human societies view them over the last 50-100 years. In their recent article, published in PLoS ONE this winter, Mazzoldi et. al. describe these changing perspectives, the reasons behind the change, and consequences for marine conservation efforts.

The conservation of marine megafauna is vital for maintaining the ecosystem goods and services we’ve come to depend on in ocean systems. Large cetaceans, fish, and other marine animals play important top-tier roles in their local food chains, maintaining a balance in their ecosystems and preventing systematic collapse. Overharvesting of whale species as early as the 15th century has been particularly detrimental to coastal environments, where previously-abundant waste products encouraged nutrient recycling (you heard that right, whale poop is good for the environment). Shark harvesting is still a pressing issue in many countries and overharvest in some areas has already led to declines in other valuable fisheries.

Whales as vengeful monsters, from Mazzoldi et. al. 2019

For much of European history, marine megafauna have been viewed as dangerous and otherworldly monsters, good only for the value of the resources extracted from them and, at worst, bad omens that should be killed on sight, even without the intention to harvest. 16th and 17th century paintings from naval excursions depict whales attacking ships, dragging sailors to their doom, while publications as recent as the 19th century describe dolphins as “phony and noxious pirates” that steal fish and should be killed whenever a fisherman has the chance. Sharks have it worse, being depicted in both ancient and current times as voracious man-eaters. While whales and other cetaceans have enjoyed a slow respite from their previously notorious reputation, sharks were still being villainized in the 1974 novel “Jaws” and several popular movies it inspired, including the more recent “The Shallows”, “The Meg”, and “Sharknado” films.

This started to change in the 1970s, when, the researchers note, documentaries featuring wildlife and the scientific or conservation organizations that work on those animals gained mass public attention. By the time I saw my first whale, television shows like Kratt’s Creatures and the Crocodile Hunter were already staples in my home. The authors also credited the ease of access and rise in SCUBA diving with this change in perspective. Wildlife and wild ecosystems weren’t scary anymore, they were intriguing and in need of protection. Growing scientific knowledge and understanding of marine megafauna’s ecological contributions only helped to grow the movement and, soon, the advent of the internet and social media would make sharing conservation messaging easier than it ever had been.

In the 1930s, many whale species were on the verge of extinction. The creation of the International Whaling Commission in 1946 was not enough to effectively manage stocks and a moratorium had to be initiated in the 1980s to avoid losing some species forever. Since then, many populations have started to recover and, in some places, revenue from whale-watching operations exceeds that from harvest-related activities.

Sharks, though, have some catching up to do. An increase in marine bathing after the Second World War led to a rise in conflicts between people and sharks, while the rise of mass media sensationalized stories and perpetuated old fears. From 1872 to 1909, the Austro-Hungarian government handed out cash rewards for the capture of White Sharks in the Adriatic Sea, but only if their stomach contents had been checked for human bodies, indicating how feared sharks were. In shark-dense regions today where attacks are more frequent (a handful each year), there are still yearly calls for systematic culling around public beaches.

Still, conservation scientists and documentary and other film makers are leading the charge in de-vilifying the sharks. The 2006 “Sharkwater” was very popular and SCUBA and cage-diving continue to grow in popularity. Where these eco-tourism activities support coastal communities, marine protected areas tend to pop up, protecting other species and ecosystems.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that size played an important role in determining which shark species benefited from growing tourism interest, with Great Whites and other large species being the most popular. So it seems the fear is still there, but maybe it’s being used for good?

Size preferences in marine megafauna used for eco-tourism purposes, from Mazzoldi et. al. 2019

Species used for tourism activities also tend to have high site-fidelity, being found in the same relatively small area at predictable times over the year. This combined with the unique needs of each species means there’s still plenty of harm that can be done to marine megafauna if eco-tourism isn’t conducted responsibly.

Mazzoldi et. al. are careful to warn us that eco-tourism does not represent a complete solution for megafauna conservation, but they do suggest it can be used as a powerful driver for this purpose by at least reducing the pressures of other uses, like harvest. As whale-watching, shark diving, and other marine tourism activities continue to grow in popularity and economic importance, it will be increasingly important to monitor the real effect they have on their subject species.

Mazzoldi C, Bearzi G, Brito C, Carvalho I, Desiderà E, Endrizzi L, et al. (2019) From sea monsters to charismatic megafauna: Changes in perception and use of large marine animals. PLoS ONE 14(12): e0226810. journal.pone.0226810

Manta rays as target harvest species and eco-tourism subject, from Mazzoldi et. al. 2019

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