Effects of Ecotourism on Tiger Sharks at the Bahamas
Published on 08. March 2012
Don’t bite the hand that feeds: assessing ecological impacts of provisioning ecotourism on an apex marine predator
Neil Hammerschlag, Austin J. Gallagher, Julia Wester, Jiangang Luo, Jerald S. Ault
1. There has been considerable debate over the past decade with respect to wildlife provisioning, especially resultant behavioural changes that may impact the ecological function of an apex predator. The controversy is exemplified by the shark diving industry, where major criticisms based on inference, anecdote and opinion stem from concerns of potential behaviourally mediated ecosystem effects because of ecotourism provisioning (aka‘chumming’ or feeding).
2. There is a general lack of empirical evidence to refute or support associated claims. The few studies that have investigated the behavioural impacts of shark provisioning ecotourism have generated conflicting conclusions, where the confidence in such results may suffer from a narrow spatial and temporal focus given the highly mobile nature of these predators. There is need for studies that examine the potential behavioural consequences of provisioning over ecologically relevant spatial and temporal scales.
3. To advance this debate, we conducted the first satellite telemetry study and movement analysis to explicitly examine the long-range migrations and habitat utilization of tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) originating in the Bahamas and Florida, two areas that differ significantly with regards to the presence/absence of provisioning ecotourism.
4. Satellite telemetry data rejected the behaviourally mediated effects of provisioning ecotourism at large spatial and temporal scales. In contrast, to the restricted activity space and movement that were hypothesized, geolocation data evidenced previously unknown long-distance migrations and habitat use for both tiger shark populations closely associated with areas of high biological productivity in the Gulf Stream and subtropical western Atlantic Ocean. We speculate that these areas are likely critically important for G. cuvier feeding forays and parturition.
5. We concluded that, in the light of potential conservation and public awareness benefits of ecotourism provisioning, this practice should not be dismissed out of hand by managers. Given the pressing need for improved understanding of the functional ecology of apex predators relative to human disturbance, empirical studies of different species sensitivities to disturbance should be used to guide best-practice ecotourism policies that maximize conservation goals.
Functional Ecology. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2435.2012.01973.x