Saturday, April 25, 2009

Feedback Loop!

What do the Great Auk, Caviar, Napoleon Wrasse and the Peppermint Angelfish have in common with the Shark Diving Industry?

The answer is that they may be subject to the Anthropogenic Allee Effect.
Obvious, no?

Always on the hunt for something noteworthy, I stumbled across the term when leafing through Christie Lynn's remarkable Blog Observations of a Nerd. May all nerds be like her!

It concerns us very much as it means that the rarity of a species may increase its value.
This in turn will increase our demand for it and thus, increase the likelihood that we will be the direct cause for its extinction - as opposed to "natural causes" as in population bottlenecks or the difficulty to find equally rare mates.

The relevant scientific paper, a must-read, presents an alarming list of empirical evidence in support of the hypothesis. Some of it describes past mistakes but alas, most of it concerns the present.
Many of the Categories listed are indeed pretty obvious, like

Hobby Collections (rare Shells, birds' eggs and yes, the Auk)
Trophy Hunting
Luxury Items (caviar, abalone, furs, the Napoleon Wrasse and I would add: soon, Sushi and Shark fins, too!)
Exotic pets (e.g. some aquarium Fishes like the Peppermint Angelfish)
Traditional Medicine (as in Chinese - and what about this despicable new-age Quackery as in Shark cartilage pills and Shark Squalene?)

What however really caught my attention was this: Ecotourism!
This is what they write.

Ecotourism ventures have expanded greatly in recent years, with the public increasingly wanting to experience a closeness to natural ecosystems or species.
Such activities often involve encountering and/or observing rare species. Given that some ecotourism activities have been shown to generate disturbances that are detrimental to the fitness of observed species [21–23], we can assume that rare species, especially those that are charismatic, will be disproportionately impacted upon by ecotourism.
Consequently, activities such as observing rare birds, whales, primates, or nesting sea turtles have the potential to generate an AAE, especially when the animals are globally rare but with reliable sightings locally.
For example, Bain [21] studied the relationships between the number of killer whales Orcinus orca in the Southern resident population (eastern North Pacific) and the number of boats registered for conducting killer whale watching tours. He found a significant inverse relationship between the number of boats observed in one year with the whale population size recorded the subsequent year. Motorized boats are known to cause disturbances to whales and lower their fitness [21]. More interestingly, there was also an inverse relationship between the decreasing whale population size recorded during one year, and the increasing size of the boat fleet the next year, indicating that contrary to expected economics, the increasing rarity of that population of killer whales did not immediately stop whale watching but may have in fact stimulated it [21]. In 2001, the number of boats in the commercial whale watching fleet exceeded the number of killer whales in the population.
Because among the activities presented here, several are primarily stimulated by people interested in nature, it is important that these people are aware of and have an understanding of the potential effect their actions may have on the very species they appreciate. Consequently, informing potential ecotourists, collectors, and pet owners may in part facilitate the process of reducing the likelihood of an AAE and thus the impact on the species that are the targets of these activities.

How the trade of rare species should be regulated is a vast and ongoing debate.
The finding that rarity itself could be a criterion for immediate threat to a species because of the psychological and economic value people attach to it is, however, a new and important piece of information in the battle to preserve biodiversity.
At the very least, this finding should lead to the realization that declaring a species too rare to be subjected to legal transactions could be dangerous for the species if it cannot be fully protected. At most, it is hoped that such information could change our rationale on the manner in which biodiversity is perceived and exploited.

Food for Thought, isn't it?

May we be contributing to the demise of charismatic large, threatened and thus, increasingly rare Sharks by showcasing them to the public at large, especially when we "open up" or even, like in our case, create Shark hotspots?

It's really a difficult one but the answer I believe is this.
I've blogged about it before, here and here: like the paper suggests, we have an obligation (Patric: again, well said!) to educate the public but above all, to protect the resource we exploit.

This is the only way forward, especially when it comes to the Shark Diving Industry that deals with animals that are regularly demonized (yes, this has pissed me off - unbelievable!) on top of being severely threatened.
It's an ethical imperative - and it is good business, too!

Thankfully, many of us have come to realize this and the number of awesome and fully integrated Shark viewing eco-businesses is on a steady rise. And I may add: look at South Africa and the Maldives for excellence, vision and guidance!

It is as Patric said: grow up, step up, clean up and get it done!
Or else, get out of the way!


Horizon Charters Guadalupe Cage Diving said...

ONLY YOU could reference the AAE in a blog post about our industry mate.

A fact not lost here - great post;)

DaShark said...


Just trying to connect the dots! Like you just did in your squid post!

The more I dabble in Conservation, the more I come to realize how complicated it is - and at the same time, fascinating!

Great to see all those intelligent people out there - and to learn so much in the process!