But Is Whale Shark Ecotourism Really Eco-Friendly?
Josh Gabbatiss - Earth Island Journal
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April 3, 2016

In Search of Whale Sharks at Isla Mujeres Mexico (Eric Falconi)

The reason tourists flock to Isla Mujeres to see whale sharks is their sheer concentration off the coast. During the summer season, these solitary fish gather in large numbers to feed on dense blooms of plankton that appear in the Caribbean waters. Such congregations are not unique to Mexico, however, and similar tourist economies have developed at other hotspots in Mozambique, Honduras, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

With such natural splendor at their disposal, it’s unsurprising that entrepreneurial locals have seized the opportunity to sell such a special ecotourism experience. The question that remains is how “eco” the opportunity really is.

...While it’s difficult to gauge how the whale sharks feel about these human additions to their feeding frenzy, they appear to be voting with their fins. Several studies have demonstrated that whale sharks actively try to avoid tourists, rapidly diving or rolling away from these perceived threats.

Whether this translates into long-term effects on the fish is unclear, but Konrad Madej, Director of the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center in Utila, Honduras, has certainly observed a lasting shift in the behaviour of the local whale shark population. These sharks target “bait boils” — large shoals of fish pushed to the surface by other predators — and with divers keen to meet whale sharks, dive boats have begun targeting these boils too.

“It’s basically like someone sitting on your dinner plate while you’re trying to eat,” says Madej. “If that was me, I’d obviously go somewhere that didn’t have people sitting on my dinner plate.” And so, with the increase in visitors to Utila, there has been a corresponding decrease in whale shark sightings near the island.

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