Cutting-edge tracking technology proves Australia’s whale shark tourism is world-leading

Cutting-edge tracking technology proves Australia’s whale shark tourism is world-leading

Cutting-edge tracking technology proves Australia's whale shark tourism is world-leading

Credit: Jess Leask, ECOCEAN

Using ‘fitbit’-like technology for sharks, a team of researchers has tagged and tracked whale sharks to study the effects of tourism on Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef for the first time. In a strong endorsement of local tourism practices, the study found that boat and diver activities had minimal impact.

Although the research found evidence of some increase in activity levels and changes in shark direction when tourists swam with them, experts say each shark’s exposure is very limited.

This is an important endorsement by Australian whale shark tourism operators in a global industry that is estimated to be worth US$1.9 billion and attracts more than 25 million people each year to 46 locations in 23 countries.

Australia has what is considered the “gold standard” in global whale shark tourism at Ningaloo Reef in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

The study, published in Journal of sustainable tourisminvolved physically tagging whale sharks with biotelemetry devices — animal-borne electronic devices that record data — for the first time, rather than relying on sightings.

“We used biotelemetry to look at the movement and behavior of whale sharks in the presence or absence of tourists,” said Dr Brad Norman, research fellow at Murdoch University’s Harry Butler Institute and director of the marine research NGO ECOCEAN.

“We found that tourist encounters lasted just over an hour and swimming with tourists increased the activity levels of larger sharks – those over seven meters – but not smaller sharks.”

“However, we know from photo ID records that most sharks are only seen three or fewer days a year at Ningaloo, so the exposure of any individual to tourism is really limited.”







Dr. Samantha Reynolds, who led the study of whale shark behavior as part of her Ph.D. at the University of Queensland tagged a whale shark with a biotelemetry device—an animal-borne electronic device that records data. Credit: Murdoch University

Dr. Samantha Reynolds, who led the study as part of her Ph.D. from the University of Queensland, said exposure is only a small part of any shark’s day.

“Given that they only spent an average of 62 minutes swimming with tourists, that’s about 4% of their entire day, so any increase in energy it requires will be a relatively small fraction of their daily energy expenditure.” said Dr. Reynolds.

“This is really important data for both animals and industry – and would not be apparent from purely observational studies.

“It’s also a management lesson for the wider wildlife tourism industry.”

“While human interactions like these are likely to impact wildlife to some extent, if managed well like the Ningaloo whale shark tourism industry, wildlife tourism can be sustainable for operators and tourists as well as the animals.”

The research team argues that this is not always the case, especially in the case of whale sharks. The methods of interacting with them and the levels of regulation that control them vary widely.

“Some countries have very little regulation of whale shark tourism, there is overpopulation and in some places sharks are fed to attract them and keep them in areas where tourists can swim with them,” Dr Norman said.

“That makes it really important – and a huge opportunity – for the global industry to see what we’re doing in Ningaloo and learn from it.”

More info:
Samantha D. Reynolds et al., Swimming with People: Biotelemetry Reveals Effects of ‘Gold Standard’ Regulated Tourism on Whale Sharks, Journal of sustainable tourism (2024). DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2024.2314624

Provided by Murdoch University

Quote: Cutting-edge tracking technology proves Australia’s whale shark tourism leads world (2024, February 29) retrieved February 29, 2024 from https://phys.org/news/2024-02-edge- tracking-technology-australian-whale.html

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