Last summer, for the second year in a row, the number of great white sharks found off the coast of Cape Cod and surrounding islands seemed to be increasing. Great whites have not always been a common sight in the waters of Cape Cod, and a study conducted by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries confirmed that the regional shark population has continued to grow since the research began in 2014. In general, great white shark populations have been steadily increasing off the coast of Cape Cod since the 1990s due to the implementation of management measures such as banning both the commercial and recreational harvesting of great whites in 1997. While this is good news, as shark populations continue to increase in the region, so does interest and participation in the shark tourism industry.
Shark tourism is a form of eco-tourism that allows people to dive with sharks in their natural environment. A Cape Cod tourist for WNYT Channel 13 told an interviewer, “Obviously, Cape Cod is beautiful in itself, but with the sharks, you know, increasing and coming up here every summer, I think that does make it more of a tourist attraction.” Not only is shark tourism a huge tourist attraction, because it gives humans the ability to enter into a world that we would otherwise never see, but it also has local economic benefits. As the “head of the local chamber of commerce” put it in an interview for WNYT Channel 13, “the marine animals have been a surprising blessing to the tourism industry.” Although shark tourism seems to have many benefits for human beings and societal structures, we also need to take into account the effect that this industry has on these sharks and the environments that they live in.
Shark tourism, specifically diving with sharks, has been proven to have both behavioral and ecological impacts on these marine animals.. Also, some practices in attracting sharks, such as chumming, and maintaining their presence in a certain area may have negative effects on individuals as well as populations. For example, when left-over fish, that had previously been used for chumming, decays on reefs, it can create an overabundance of microbes that leads to coral death or problematic algal blooms. In addition to this, certain types of shark chumming can even lead to the sharks striking cages used for diving and injuring themselves or the humans inside the cage. Beyond chumming, shark tourism is a large and fast-growing industry, and there are currently not enough regulations to control how it is operated.
However, despite the negative consequences that this industry can have, shark tourism does have the potential to reduce the general fear of sharks and help the public realize how important they are to marine ecosystems. There are ways in which you can participate in shark tourism while respecting shark populations and making sure any impact on their habitats is reduced as much as possible at the same time. In general, ecotourism activities should cause minimal impact on the environment and local people, build environmental awareness and respect, provide direct financial benefits for conservation and sustainability, and encourage stewardship and conservation of the natural environment. By participating with shark tourism groups that live by these core values, you can ensure that you are observing these marine animals in their natural habitats without causing any damage to them or their ecosystems.
The state of Massachusetts has already established a ban on the use of chum and decoys to lure sharks, which is very good, and will help protect sharks in the Cape Cod region from the ecological and behavioral impacts that result from the practice of chumming. However, there are many other shark tourism industries around the globe that still do not have policies that are aimed at protecting the well-being of sharks. By researching sustainable shark tourism groups that are aimed at protecting and conserving shark populations before traveling to coastal areas, you can not only learn about and observe these majestic creatures in real life, but you will also be playing an active role in making sure these sharks and their habitats remain unharmed.
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