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Experts call out misguided ecotourism attempts and impacts on vulnerable shark populations: 'Just because you put the green label on something doesn't mean it really is'

"Real ecotourism requires enforcing standards and responsible behavior."

"Real ecotourism requires enforcing standards and responsible behavior."

Photo Credit: iStock

While swimming with sharks has become a much-sought-after activity among adventurous tourists worldwide, scientists are sounding the alarm about how irresponsible ecotourism is endangering the species.

What's happening?

As the Spanish newspaper El País reported, British biologist Joel Gayford found in a study that shark tourism negatively impacts whale sharks' behavior and habitat. 

Using drones to observe the sharks' behavior patterns, Gayford discovered that frequent human interaction caused the sharks to move slower and use more energy, per the paper. 

Gayford, a shark expert from Imperial College London, told El País that these drastic shifts in the whale sharks' movements can change their favored feeding areas and have ripple effects on entire marine ecosystems. 

"When a population of sharks changes its preferred location, it affects the abundance of the species it feeds on," he explained to the paper.

According to Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, whale sharks are critical to keeping ecosystems in balance, as they help transfer nutrients between areas, which allows other species to find food where it would otherwise be scarce. 

"The activities and changes in the landscape they bring can have disastrous effects on migration, reproduction and other forms of life," Gayford added.

Why is this concerning?

While ecotourism is an excellent way to encourage people to conserve the environment and travel sustainably, it can also have unintended consequences. 

As El País explained, ecotourism can lead to pollution, habitat disruption, and ecosystem damage if tour guides aren't careful about keeping people and animals safe. 

"Real ecotourism requires enforcing standards and responsible behavior. Just because you put the green label on something doesn't mean it really is," Irene Gómez, a marine biologist, told the paper.

Misguided ecotourism can even cause physical harm to the species. 

In the Maldives, where Gómez has been studying, 76% of the 708 identified whale sharks have suffered injuries, mostly from propellers on boats speeding through the waters, per El País.

As Biodiversity for a Livable Climate noted, these majestic creatures are classified as endangered, and unregulated fishing for their fins, meat, and oil, as well as being caught or killed unintentionally by industrial fishing companies, puts them further at risk.

Also, the massive amounts of plastic swirling around the oceans — an estimated 220 million tons, per the Ocean Conservancy — are wreaking havoc on marine environments. As the plastic breaks down into microplastics, species like whale sharks ingest them, which can cause digestive issues and impact other animals in the food chain.

What's being done to protect whale sharks?

Gayford called for enforcing rules that increase the minimum distance between humans and sharks to make ecotourism safer for both species. 

In addition, he said there should be better communication between scientists, public officials, and ecotourism guides to regulate activities that endanger animals like whale sharks. 

Scientists are working to protect sharks using a device that helps them avoid fishing boats. Another project allows researchers to collect creatures' DNA to build a "map of biodiversity."

The island of Dominica created the world's first sperm whale reserve, and Greece recently banned bottom trawling, a controversial fishing practice that can disrupt aquatic habitats.

We can also help our shark friends by reducing the amount of plastic products we buy and choosing eco-friendly travel destinations.

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