Aquaculture Biodiversity Conservation Ecology Human impacts Outreach

Taking a Bite of the Blue Economy

Cisneros-Montemayor, A. M., et al. “Shark ecotourism in Mexico: Scientific research, conservation, and contribution to a Blue Economy.” Advances in marine biology. Vol. 85. No. 1. Academic Press, 2020. 71-92.

Snorkelers with a whale shark. This is one of several shark ecotourism activities typically offered by tour companies. Photo by Eric Burgers, Flickr.

In the last few decades, the ecotourism industry has exploded, opening new avenues for people to experience nature while participating in unconventional activities. Ecotourism can be anything from whale watching in British Columbia to a nighttime rainforest walk, but the main goals are usually interacting responsibly with nature and the local community.  Due to the popularity of ecotourism, many countries and communities have become dependent on the revenue generated by the tourists who are participating. In Mexico, shark ecotourism has bolstered the national economy and provided opportunities for shark conservation. Currently, there are at least eleven shark ecotourism sites across Mexico. The authors of this article explore pros and cons of shark ecotourism in Mexico, as well as how it could impact shark conservation in the future.

This figure shows the 11 shark ecotourism sites in Mexico, as well as the types of sharks present in each area. From Cisneros-Montemayor et al 2020.

A multi-institutional team of scientists surveyed and summarized scientific papers to better understand the types of economic benefits and potential conservation drawbacks that occur through shark ecotourism. Here are some of the pros and cons that they found: 

Pro: The main economic benefit of shark ecotourism was revenue. Sharks are one of the most economically important species in Mexico. The annual revenue generated by the industry was over 12 million USD, and the benefits of ecotourism also spill over into the transportation and fishery sectors. 

Con: The increased interaction between sharks and humans can cause changes in shark behavior. If bait is used to attract sharks, sharks may associate humans (or boats) with food and choose to follow boats instead of hunting for food. This would cause sharks to lose energy, rather than conserve it, and cause changes in future feeding behavior. While the team acknowledges that more research needs to be done, they conclude that only four out of the ten key shark species were affected by ecotourism so far. However, other negative effects could emerge as more studies and observation is conducted on more shark species.

Cage snorkeling and diving are also popular ecotourism options, but more research needs to be done on how these interactions may affect shark behavior in the future. From Wikimedia commons.

Pro: Shark ecotourism can be integrated with citizen science and research studies which help to better understand shark conservation, behavior and ecology. One ecotourism site takes both biologists and tourists on day-long expeditions to watch and interact with sharks. This encourages tourists to learn about sharks and provides hands-on education for people. Due to increased interest in sharks, marine protected areas (MPAs) are also enforced more strictly, which improves local and regional conservation efforts as well.  

Con: Some shark ecotourism sites are founded and staffed by locals, but other sites are owned and staffed by international companies. While this isn’t inherently bad, the exclusion of locals and local communities can undermine the equitable distribution of benefits associated with shark ecotourism. The team recommends involving locals in whatever ways possible in order to encourage pride in cultural traditions while achieving education and conservation goals.

Overall, the team concludes that shark ecotourism has incredible potential to integrate conservation and economic value as part of a blue economy. According to the world bank, a blue economy is “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystems.” In Mexico, and possibly beyond, shark ecotourism could be a vital part of sparking the development of a global blue economy. The team hopes that a blue economy will bring a sustainable future to ecotourism throughout Mexico and include local communities in the implementation of conservation initiatives.

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