Please don’t ride sharks, and other great tips from the new guide to responsible shark diving

Shark wildlife tourism* is a growing marine industry with big implications for shark conservation. While there are many competing definitions, generally shark wildlife tourism refers to SCUBA dive operators who offer trips that guarantee that you’ll see sharks, often through the use of bait or chum to attract sharks to the divers. This has become a contentious issue in marine science and conservation circles. That’s why last week’s news that  WWF, Project AWARE, and the Manta Trust released the first-ever guide to responsible shark and ray tourism best practices is so welcome. This thorough and well-researched guide guide is designed for dive operators who want to minimize their potential harm to sharks and rays while maximizing the potential conservation benefits of shark wildlife tourism.

Potential conservation benefits of shark wildlife tourism

Advocates of shark wildlife tourism claim that in some cases, this can help shark conservation by making sharks more valuable alive than dead. The greatest threat facing sharks as a whole is commercial overfishingbut if sharks can contribute more to a local economy by attracting SCUBA divers than by extractive fishing, this can provide an economic incentive to stop fishing. This is certainly true in some cases, but it isn’t true in very many countries, and it isn’t true for the total global value of shark fishing vs. shark wildlife tourism. A recent study from the Bahamas, however, found that the economic benefits of shark wildlife tourism are not distributed to locals who lost income because of the loss of fishing (see my writeup for Hakai here).

Shark wildlife tourism can also expose people to sharks in their natural habitat, which can result in public support for conservation. “I credit a lot of the new public perception to people now having more and more opportunities to see sharks on their terms,” says conservation biologist Rick MacPherson, who founded the Sustainable Shark Diving program. “Show me someone who is afraid of sharks, and I’ll show you someone who has not seen a shark underwater while diving. That’s when you see how beautiful and graceful these big, charismatic ocean wildlife can be. And you also realize how uninterested they are in us as prey.”

These potential benefits vary not only by country, but by specific dive operation. “There are certainly examples from around the world of some great operators that put the emphasis on the eco part of eco-tourism, ones that are actively engaging and assisting shark conservation efforts,” says Ian Campbell, the manager of WWF’s Shark and Ray Program. “while there are others that definitely focus on the tourism part.”

It is also important to note that while wildlife tourism can help protect local shark populations, it is unlikely to be a significant contributor to conserving many of the most threatened shark species worldwide. Wildlife tourism only works when divers can reliably expect to see a shark, which is not typically the case for species who live in the open ocean, live in very deep water, or have had their populations depleted so badly that there just aren’t many left.

Potential harm to sharks and rays

If done correctly, shark wildlife tourism has the potential to benefit shark conservation. If not done properly, however, there are numerous potential drawbacks that can cause lasting and significant harm to sharks and rays. “There are some immediate issues that spring to mind regarding what is bad for sharks, which definitely include unnecessary touching or manhandling which can lead to injuries, provision of inappropriate foods and significantly damaging the natural habitat,” Campbell says.

For example, dive operators providing food has resulted in drastic changes in the diet and behavior of stingrays at Stingray City– which has resulted in stress and disease. Additionally, the needlessly risky behavior of some dive operators puts the safety of both sharks and humans in jeopardy, and threatens to undo all of the positive publicity and perspective shifts from well-done wildlife tourism.

While some dive operators claim that the worst SCUBA diving practices are probably better for sharks than overfishing, there’s no question that good dive practices are better for sharks than bad dive practices. Other dive operators claim that shark research is worse for sharks than wildlife harassment by SCUBA divers, which is among the worst conservation takes I’ve ever come across.

How the new Guide can help

The Guide, a collaborative project between WWF, Project AWARE, and the Manta Trust, aims to provide dive operators with a list of best practices that can maximize potential benefits while minimizing (if not eliminating) potential harm. “The Guide contains practical advice on a number of issues, including minimising impacts on the species, getting involved in research and citizen science projects, considerations for choosing an appropriate site and what it means to be a best practice operator,” says Campbell. “We also provide information to take into account in areas such as a social licence to operate, working with local communities, understanding legal requirements and how to create conservation focussed core values for businesses. We even provide information on shark and ray feeding.” The Guide also includes case studies and summaries of the latest research on shark wildlife tourism.

While the Guide is designed primarily dive operators, it can also be used by divers to identify a good dive operator. Additionally, Rick MacPherson’s Sustainable Shark Diving program can also be a useful tool for divers hoping to select a conservation-friendly shark diving experience. “My hope in creating Sustainable Shark Diving was to build a platform where divers who enjoy or are interested in shark diving could find information to make more informed decisions about the type of shark dive is right for them as well as how to select a reputable dive operator,” MacPherson said. “So Sustainable Shark Diving emerged as a Trip Advisor for shark and ray diving. On the site, users can evaluate and rate shark dive operators across a spectrum of sustainability criteria that includes in-water safety, educational information, animal treatment, environmental sustainability, and conservation ethic. Instead of just a qualitative written review, I’m asking users to quantify how dive operators perform in each category. By doing so, we can compare shark dive operators apples to apples.”

The new guide is a welcome voice in the ongoing discussion about balancing the risks and benefits of shark wildlife tourism. ” While eco-tourism is not the conservation “silver bullet” that many organisations imply well managed shark eco-tourism can certainly assist conservation efforts for some species in some parts of the world,” Campbell says. “Our Guide, alongside the new Sustainable Shark Diving project can provide an impetus for tourism operators to play an important role in safeguarding sharks and rays.”

(* = I am using the broader term “wildlife tourism” rather than the term “ecotourism” here intentionally. Wildlife tourism is simply tourism that involves wildlife, while something isn’t really ecotourism if it doesn’t benefit (or does harm) the environment. )

Author’s note: Guide co-author Catherine Macdonald is a University of Miami classmate of mine. She is also co-author on several papers, including an in-review paper on shark wildlife tourism.