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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Shark eco tourism: multi-layered, economically-viable appraoch to conservation

Today Carol R posted some pics of her recent (caged) shark diving experiences in Mexico. My initial reaction was "never me" and "terrifying". Then this article was posted on bush warriors and it reminded me, as with all thing in life, that I need to be open-minded about these things! This is a really inspiring article about how one man, is winning the shark conservation war, with a multi-layered approach involving vigilance, law enforcement and eco-tourism. Thanks to Carol and bush warriors for reminding me to always check my prejudices. - MA
PS: There are LOTS more pictures in the original article on the Bush Warriors website.

Sharks, Tourism, and Conservation: The Truth About Shark Diving
From the Bushwarriors blog

Selling shark tourism as a way to inspire appreciation for these misunderstood predators is one thing, but if the business is done right, it can accomplish much more than an increased affinity for these animals. Of course, changing society’s attitude towards these creatures is imperative to their survival. However, shark tourism operators also have the potential to offer protection to these big fish, in addition to supporting shark research and conservation efforts. And they can make money while they do these things!

The majority of mainstream media attention focuses on instilling a fear of these creatures with sensationalized headlines that include words like “shark attack”, “monster”, and even “Killer Shark Looms Offshore Waiting for Next Victim”. However, the truth of the matter is that every single day we are some 217,000 sharks closer to losing these ocean-balancing organisms forever. Shark diving opportunities provide people with a chance to gain a new understanding for these animals. When done properly, it brings people as close to these predators as one can safely get. Such an experience can change a person’s life and give them motivation to protect these animals.

Imagine the power of these experiences, if they were to educate people on the largely unknown state of the current shark crisis. Beyond education, what if shark tourism clients were provided a way to literally become involved in protecting and conserving sharks, and even assisting with their research? This is entirely possible, and it’s already being done in some places.

Canadian national, Mike Lever, is a veteran in the cage diving business and is one of the largest shark cage diving operators on the Pacific coast of Mexico, but he’s much different than the majority of his competitors. After seeing the devastating effects of overfishing and shark finning, Lever has built his business in a way that provides protection for these amazing creatures, a purpose for the shark tourism industry that is largely overlooked and neglected.

As a large challenge in halting illegal fishing of sharks seems to lie in a lack of enforcement and patrols, Lever has purposefully placed his boats in a position that serves as a warning to anyone who dares to attempt to fish for or fin sharks in the areas where he operates. His and his clients’ mere presence serves as a deterrent to the these activities. The conservationist businessmen established this persona by confronting shark poachers head on.

In 2008, Lever chased a poaching vessel for four hours before he was finally able to convince the captain to return to the location where his crew had set an illegal fishing net. Sadly, Lever found that the boat was already loaded with numerous dead sharks and manta rays. However, when they got back to the site, they found sea turtles, dolphins, and 17 thresher sharks entangled in the poachers’ net.

“That was really distressing. They are gentle giants. It was like pulling over a truck in Africa and finding seven elephants,” commented Lever in his interview with the Vancouver Sun.

Though he expected a strong response from law enforcement, he was shocked to learn the authorities took no action at all and even rejected the claim that there were sharks and mantas onboard the ship. Lever waged war against the sharks’ enemies and made a lot of noise with a widely seen TV show that depicted the event. As expected, Mexico responded promptly and beefed up their patrols… at least until the noise died down.

Lever says the fishermen stayed away from the shark-concentrated area where he conducts his cage diving tours for almost a year. He now flies his own aircraft on random patrols over the area to discourages illegal shark fisheries, while his shark tour boats hold down the fort in the water. He’s setting a classic example of how other shark tourism operators can create a business that serves multiple purposes, aside from making money.

Additionally, this man has a profound respect for the predatory and unpredictable nature of these animals. He says he would never put sharks in a position that would allow them to become vilified, say by providing free-diving shark experiences in which someone could potentially be killed by a shark, for example.

One of the controversies surrounding shark tourism involves chumming, the practice of baiting sharks to an area by tossing blood and raw animal flesh into the waters. Doing this can change shark behavior and potentially create a dangerous situation. Some operators in Hawaii have recently come under scrutiny of the courts for this practice. Lever is opposed to this large-scale chumming, for the safety of his clients, as well as that of the sharks.

Lever has also created two conservation trust funds with the sole purpose of protecting the marine life of the areas where he conducts his tours: Guadalupe Island and Socorro Island. He successfully raised $160,000 through donations from his clients and from his personal income over the last two years, and uses the money to fund American and Mexican researchers studying sharks. Some of the projects the trust funds have supported include putting transmitter tags on the animals so they can be tracked, as well as deploying marine acoustic censors designed to monitor the sharks’ environment.

“You can’t save these animals if you don’t understand them,” Lever explains.

There are other ways for shark tourists to get involved in the conservation of these creatures, as well. Recall the development of a new scientific database that allows researchers to keep tabs on sharks and their populations using photos of their fins. Cage diving clients can easily contribute to this research by snapping photos of the sharks they see, which can then be stored in the new database. Not only would they get to enjoy their direct shark experience, but they can humbly assist with the collection of much-needed data.

Shark-based tourism holds far more potential than one would think. We recently told you about a report from a team of environmental economists that highlighted the success of this industry, as well as the increased value of alive sharks over those killed for their fins or flesh. Furthermore, the business creates jobs and generates revenue for the economy.

The questionable future of these incredible marine predators could benefit greatly from an increase in shark tourism, especially that which also seeks to protect these animals. After all, they could not be in make money without these animals, so why not repay them with these simple gestures? Converting shark fishermen to business in safe and ethical shark tourism could very well reverse the current trends threatening all shark populations with extinction.

To read more about Mike Lever’s story, click here.

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