Sunday, June 07, 2020

Elasmobranch Tourism for Managers - Paper!

Shark Reef: happy tourists, happy Sharks! Great pic by Ozzie Sam - click for detail!

And here we go again.
Andrew has sent me this paper, and I am once again irritated.
Mind you it is by no means terrible, the more as it correctly states that  
The strict self-imposed management actions and limited number of shark feeding operators at Shark Reef in Fiji, has resulted in minimal long-term effects on bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) behaviour and diet, and is likely to have had no effects on health and fitness,

and that

Provisioning elasmobranchs, the activity deemed to have the most risk associated with it, can be effectively undertaken if appropriate management is in place (e.g. bull shark feeding at Shark Reef Reserve, Fiji)
But the paper is certainly also not good, either.
Like some of its equally irritating predecessors, it suggests that there is a problem urgently requiring third-party management = regulation, something I most strongly disagree with, especially when it comes to those forever maligned provisioned Shark dives.

It's same old same old.
Over the many years, I've blogged about the latter at nauseam and am actually tired tired tired of the bloody useless controversy - but here goes, just because this nonsense cannot remain unanswered.
Read the links!

1. Threats to Sharks and Rays (and their Habitats)

Sharks and Rays are not faring well.
At risk of stating the obvious: the biggest threats to their populations are:
  • Overfishing (Targeted and Bycatch)
    Globally, overfishing of Elasmobranchs remains rampant due to widespread IUU and inadequate management, monitoring, enforcement and prosecution.
    Specifically, this equates to a yearly mortality of roughly 100 million Sharks that are  being killed for the fins, their meat but also other products like e.g. squalene. That is clearly unsustainable and also means that whereas some local conservation efforts have been highly successful, Elasmobranch  conservation appears to be largely failing at a global scale.
    And to add to the problem, we are additionally threatening Shark and Ray populations by equally overfishing their prey.
  • Global Warming and Ocean Acidification whose impacts are both direct but above all indirect (= just a small example) as every single marine ecosystem in general and all Elasmobranch habitats in particular are being severely affected, and this generally negatively. And of course no Shark or Ray will survive if we destroy their habitat!

  • Pollution
    Need I elaborate? And it's by no means only the plastic!

  • Human Encroachment
    This results in habitat change and degradation, and also in conflicts all the way to triggering large and indiscriminate responses that may indeed threaten some local populations like e.g. in Australia, South Africa and possibly, Reunion Island.
And Shark and Ray tourism?

Yeah, right.
Think that in comparison, tourism is in any way a relevant factor?

Actually, on the contrary!
Not only does Elasmobranch tourism not endanger Shark and Ray populations - but in the overriding majority of cases, it contributes substantially to their protection all the way to being its principal driver!
To wit, even in the most infamous documented case of harmful Elasmo tourism, i.e. that of those Southern Stingrays on Grand Cayman, the population appears to be thriving as everybody there understands how valuable they are to the local economy!

So is everything perfect?
Of course not, see e.g. above - but it is certainly not catastrophic, either!

A. Overcrowding and Competition.

This can be a cause for concern.
Especially in multi-user sites, the competition between too many uncoordinated and/or unmanaged tourism operators can lead to excesses that can inconvenience or even harm the animals.
And if so, and only if the industry itself is not able, or willing to cooperate and to self-regulate, then the authorities may indeed have to step in with some common-sense regulations, like limits in the numbers of tourists and/or operators and/or vessels, or e.g. licenses so that the authorities can obtain some data and/or income for monitoring, or common sense codes of conduct, etc.
But regulation should always be the exception and not the rule lest it becomes stifling or even counterproductive!

B. Shark Feeding.

This is what we have learned over the many years.
  • Shark feeding appears unproblematic at the ecosystem level
    All research into those baited Shark dives appears to concur that those dives have little to no effect at large spatial and temporal scales. It appears pretty clear that far from becoming dependent on the handouts, those provisioned Sharks continue to fulfill their ecological roles and also continue to follow their normal life cycles as in e.g. mating, pupping and migrating = there are no described major negative effects impinging on the viability of those populations.

  • However, there are certainly effects at small spatial and temporal scales.
    Shark feeding often aggregates the animals, and this can have local consequences. As an example, take the increased aggression of those Lemons in Moorea; or the observed competitive exclusion of other Sharks in South Africa and possibly Fiji (= much has changed since that paper, and many of the intermediate Sharks are back, for reasons unknown); or those postulated local behavioral changes and marginally increased residency in Southern Australia. That said, the effects are clearly rather minor and don't appear to at all threaten local populations.

    And some of the other marine life may be affected insofar as they, too, may aggregate and partake in a meal = incidentally much like they do in countless other occasions ranging from organic waste being pumped into the oceans by discharges and e.g. rivers all the way to targeted feeding - and now please do tell me which has the by far greater impact!

  • Plus, let's not forget the impact of the thousands upon thousands of people who feed and condition Sharks and other Fishes on a daily basis, i.e. the fishermen and spearos!
    Case in point:

    And this is being repeated, mutatis mutandis, countless times wherever there are fishermen = always and everywhere!
    Do you really believe that the incremental effect of a few dozen Shark feeding operators is in any way relevant to the health of Elasmobranch populations?
So let's please be crystal clear about the following:
Elasmobranch tourism does in no way threaten the survival of the populations of the Sharks and Rays it showcases - period!

2. Threats to People

Again, this is obviously about Shark Feeding.
As per the below table, the authors considers it to be extremely dangerous, and also postulate the urgent need for regulation owing to widespread lack of management.
Click for detail!

But if so and Shark feeding so damn dangerous - how come that actually, we are not drowning in horrible injuries and fatalities?
See below!

So there, for the umpteenth bloody time.

A. Public Safety Considerations.
  • There is no geographical correlation between Shark feeding and Shark strikes.
    Re-read this. In brief and with maybe the exception of SA, the vast majority of Shark strikes occurs in locations where there are no Shark feeding operations (like e.g. Florida, California, Western Australia, Reunion or Recife, Brazil)  - which is even more surprising if one considers that most of those dives have been established in places that are known for their healthy Shark populations!
    And even if there were some correlation, it certainly does not equate causation = there is a grand total of zero evidence that Shark feeding endangers the public at large!
    But of course there are some caveats.
    • Location matters.
      Many Shark dives have been being established where there are already Sharks, meaning that objectively speaking, the risk profile is unlikely to change - but perceptions matter and like in the case of population centers like, say, Cape Town or Playa, the diving activity and associated increased publicity of Sharks can lead to conflicts with the other local ocean users. Consequently, as a rule, the feeding locations need to be as remote as possible and should definitely not be established e.g. right in the middle of population centers or right in front of popular beaches etc.

    • Obtaining the required social license and stakeholder involvement are crucial.
      The local stakeholders need to become an integral part of these projects - and this not only through regular awareness, education and consultations but also by letting them partake in the financial windfall, both indirectly but very much also directly. This will help avoid unnecessary risks (eg by having locals avoid the feeding sites), help protect the animals and ensure crucial local support when the inevitable problems will arise.

    • Get in the research.
      The best argument against many of the intuitively plausible reservations of our detractors are strong scientific data. As an example, when people got bitten by Bull Sharks in Cancun and everybody tried to blame the Shark feeding operations in Playa, the operators there had the data showing that they were only feeding females whereas the Bull Shark population in Cancun was only comprised of males. Or in our case, our Bull Shark data show conclusively that we are neither causing residency nor any dependency on our handouts - which right now is helping us make the argument that the present reduction in Shark feeding due to Covid-19 is not endangering our beachgoers!
    B. Safety of the Participants.

    This is a different matter altogether.
    Contrary to the public at large that may be unaware and/or unsupportive of, and thus be subjected to Shark provisioning, anybody partaking in Shark feeding dives knows what they are getting themselves into, and is thus implicitly approving of the activity and possibly even assuming the associated risks.
    Still, we strongly advocate that the operators of commercial dives need to keep their clients (and their employees!) safe - and if not, they need to be held accountable.

    The following considerations apply.
    • Feeding protocols.
      Like I often state, it is often not about the WHAT but about the HOW.
      Shark provisioning creates its own risks, and those risks need to be managed - meaning that all protocols should be chosen in function of minimizing the impact on both the animals and the habitat, and on maximizing the safety for the participants but also the public at large. E.g., everybody will hopefully agree that creating humongous chum trails or dumping indiscriminate amounts of bait to create feeding frenzies is probably a bad idea. Here at BAD, we run a tightly choreographed dive with stringent safety protocols that is often hailed as a template for sustainable Shark feeding, see the citations at the top. Or as another example, we go to great lengths to condition the Bulls never to come to the surface, lest we get accused of endangering other aquatic recreationists.
      In brief, we need to be in a position to demonstrate that we are always striving to conduct our dives in the safest possible way - think, Airline Industry!

    • Shark bites will nevertheless happen.
      As Sharks feeding is risky, the risk will sometimes eventuate - and there is really nothing whatsoever we can do about it apart from protecting ourselves (= steel mesh!) and then dealing professionally with the consequences - and if we do, I am convinced that the consequences will be minimal.
      Case in point: it didn't quite happen like that - but a client did get bitten despite of arguably the industry's most stringent protocols, and no degree of management would have prevented it. And he obviously survived because we were prepared in terms of training, medical supplies and evacuation protocols, as everybody should be!
    • There are Shark strikes and Shark strikes.
      Whereas Shark provisioning is certainly a dangerous undertaking requiring skills and circumspection, everybody in the industry agrees that the cause for bites during provisioned dives is either a) self defense, b) competition or c) mistakes - not predation = those bites can be serious, but the consequences of a fully fledged predatory attack would be something else altogether!
      Exception - but the guy was certainly asking for it!

    • Yes we certainly condition the Sharks, and yes they learn, and this very fast indeed - but they learn to eat bait, not humans!
      It is also absolutely plausible to assume that provisioned Sharks may have learned to e.g. associate the boat noise with a subsequent feeding opportunity, and will thus aggregate when they hear the vessels, or when the operators rev the engines in order to "ring the dinner bell".
      But "turning up" does not equate "attacking"!

    • And finally, with one single fatality (or possibly two) recorded in thousands upon thousands of Shark feeds, baited Shark dives are many orders of magnitude safer than SCUBA!
      This is because contrary to ordinary diving where people are routinely being thrown into situations that can prove to be treacherous, baited and provisioned Shark dives are nearly always supervised and choreographed = help is always quickly at hand.
      Also, and provided that (!) we act responsibly, yours truly and every single Shark diving operator I've ever asked have made the observation that the Sharks become positively tame, meaning that the risk of a bite is lower not higher!
      Case in point: look no further than Florida and Tiger Beach, home of troglodytes, Shark molesters and media whores, and scene of ever stupider shenanigans by self-promoting Shark whisperers and awareness raisers - and yet nobody is being killed as those poor Sharks are quite obviously unendingly tolerant and forgiving!
    And there you have it.

    When it comes to those Shark feeding dives, I remain convinced that regulation makes only sense in those multi-user sites suffering from overcrowding, and this only when the industry is not able, or willing to cooperate and self regulate, like what is quite possibly  happening in Playa.

    Other than that, any incidents are already suitably covered.
    Since the participants are most certainly willing, those ubiquitous liability waivers should be allowed to stand in minor cases. And any grossly negligent harm to customers can be adequately prosecuted under existing local legislation, whereas existing OHS regulations will suffice to deal with any failure in training and protecting one's employees.
    And that is plenty sufficient.

    Possible exception: those new commercial free-diving ventures!
    Free diving with large predatory Sharks in baited conditions used to largely be private undertakings but it is now being increasingly offered commercially. From this vantage point, this is bringing about a whole new set of specific risks (= foremost of which the great vulnerability of the customers at the water surface) that the paper appears to completely neglect.
    This is novel territory that needs to be closely monitored, the more as those are mostly shoestring and largely improvised (and IMO highly sketchy) operations with no relevant assets = nothing much to be had should the obvious risks end up eventuating.

    But then again, nobody so far has died despite of all the stupid shenanigans, so who am I to say!

    3. Long story short?

    What really disappoints me is this.
    We are in the middle of the sixth, anthropocene mass extinction requiring all hands on deck in order to try and stem the ongoing catastrophic loss of biodiversity - and yet some quarters find it fit to continue wasting scarce resources in terms of time, brain power and possibly also money on these irrelevant trifles.

    The actual physical footprint of our industry is tiny.
    And yet, we punch way above our weight in terms of outreach but also Shark and Ray conservation and research, and as such are an important agent for positive change = far from being a problem, we are very much part of the solution!
    So why this exasperating fixation on wanting to meddle with what we do?

    Yes, sure: we need to operate responsibly.
    As ecotourism operators, all of us need to strive to have the smallest possible negative impact on the animals and their habitat, and we also need to operate safely - and the vast majority of us actually do!
    Furthermore, we continue to learn from our mistakes, and continue to improve and refine our procedures, like we always have. In fact, we now even have an association of industry pioneers, leaders and trend setters that routinely discuss issues and develop solutions - like right now, we are developing Covid-19 protocols!

    And if not, the market will do what markets do.
    This is a small community where there are no secrets, and notorious transgressors will be quickly weeded out as no travel agent and/or tourist will book dives with operators that are known to be unsustainable and/or exploitative and/or life threatening = which is why I continue to strongly support the establishment of a rating system akin to what has been proposed here

    But enough said - like I said, I'm tired of this shit.
    In concluding (yes, finally!) let me cite myself.

    We did not ask for this - and all this incessant nagging and lecturing by people who ultimately have no clue about, and zero investment into our industry is frankly becoming terminally irksome. 
    There is now a whole cabal of incidentally mainly female researchers whose academic niche (and thus career and thus income) is predicated upon being considered ecotourism experts, or whatever, and who appear to be operating with questionable agendas and also appear to desperately want to meddle instead of waiting to be asked.

    When it comes to the global Shark diving industry in general, there are now one excellent paper and one good one (both, incidentally, by experienced Shark divers!) and several that are not, see e.g. here and also here, and here with links.
    And now there is this. 

    That's plenty enough, thank you very much.
    And now, please, why don't you just fuck off - because we actually got work to do, salaries to pay and tourists to wow!
    No hard feelings, love you all! :)


    Unknown said...

    Mike, I must confess that I generally agree with you. Especially regarding the lack of discernment of the public and sometimes of scientists about the negative impact of shark ecotourism on... sharks! compared to threats such as fishing or other human activities that should be much more targetted and influenced through our studies. @thesharkvet @ericclua #ericclua

    Anonymous said...

    Mike, I love your passion, and commitment. That’s some powerful writing there, and as a customer, and shark lover I’m so glad of, and appreciate, the work you guys and girls are doing. I gotta say I agree with you on the female eco-warriors. They seek attention, push their (usually) uneducated views out there, and get all pouty when you evenly remotely disagree with them, because yes, that’s their source of income. I wish I was as eloquent with words as you, to rebut them when their views surface on fb pages, forums etc. I will be using your words in future. Many thanks.

    Lindsay L. Graff said...

    “- important agent for positive change = far from being a problem, we are very much part of the solution!” Hear, hear!!

    DaShark said...

    Thank you everybody, appreciate!

    Anon: Please feel free to quote wide & far: that's precisely why I post so many links = evidence!