The proposed shark tourism project must walk a fine line to balance benefits and safety

A proposed tourism project off the coast of Nova Scotia that would allow people to view great white sharks through the bars of a submerged cage requires a balancing act between sightseeing and the animals’ needs, one expert says.

A proposed tourism project off the coast of Nova Scotia that would allow people to view great white sharks through the bars of a submerged cage requires a balancing act between sightseeing and the animals’ needs, one expert says.

Shark watching is a growing global tourism industry, but it has the potential for harm, Fred Wariskey, executive director of Dalhousie University’s Ocean Tracking Network, said in a recent interview.

“The balancing act is, on the one hand, reaping the benefits of this ecotourism activity, versus, on the other hand, the potential to either physically harm the animals or change their behavior in ways that could start to have effects only on those animals , but on whole ecosystems.”

Atlantic Shark Expeditions said it plans to launch its shark-watching tours this fall, offering tourists the chance to pay to see the animals from the comfort of a boat — or from inside a cage submerged in the water.

Owner Neil Hammerschlag, who has a doctorate in marine biology and fisheries from the University of Miami, said he has conducted research on sharks and the potential effects of ecotourism.

“Unlike some other types of shark diving that may involve feeding the animals, we don’t intend or try not to feed the animals,” he said.

“We also don’t stay in the same place. We’re moving.”

Hammerschlag said the main goal of his venture is science. The ecotourism project, he said, is to fund his scientific work, which involves photographing the animals and tagging them to track their movements.

“Science is the driving force and ecotourism comes together,” Hammerschlag said.

Aaron McNeil, a professor in Dalhousie University’s biology department, said he questions Hammerschlag’s motives.

“If this was a scientific endeavor, you wouldn’t be taking money from people and building a business around it. Right? So the motivation, the main goal here seems to be to get people to come and have an experience with these animals. And that’s not what you would do if your primary goal is scientific research.”

McNeil said he was particularly concerned about Hammerschlag’s plan to offer sightseeing tours about three miles off the coast of Liverpool, North Carolina, where surfers typically ride waves.

“For somebody to come in and throw themselves down there, you know, this shark caging operation, diving operation … that’s probably not in the public interest, there’s going to be an increased threat to recreational users.”

Meanwhile, Hammerschlag said the five-kilometre stretch off southwestern Nova Scotia is “really far” from shore and that tourist boats won’t interfere with surfers.

But McNeill said the distance “seems to be pulled out of nowhere”, adding that he would like the government to come up with a science-based justification for the number.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has confirmed it has issued a Species at Risk Act permit to Atlantic Shark Expeditions, allowing the company to conduct scientific research on the animals’ population trends, health and habitats. The permit will be valid from May 1 to Nov. 30 for the years 2023 and 2024, department spokeswoman Christine Lyons said.

“These permits are issued in specific circumstances set out in the Species at Risk Act and only when certain pre-conditions are met,” she said in a statement. Lyons declined an interview request to explain what those preconditions are, how the department will oversee the company’s operations or what justifies the five-kilometer distance from the coast. She said she would send a reply next week.

The great white shark is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and listed as Endangered by the Committee on the Status of Threatened Wildlife in Canada.

Whoriskey said the most important measure to take when dealing with an endangered species is to protect it from harm. He said if the animals see people feeding them from boats, “you change the behavior of the animals, you make them believe that people mean food.”

“And when a boat shows up, they’ll come and start looking for food from people, and potentially down the road they’ll even become aggressive if they don’t get food.”

A 2020 study in the journal Environmental Law backed up Whoriskey’s claims, saying that while tourism can provide economic incentives to protect shark populations in some cases, feeding the animals has both environmental and safety implications. The effects of such actions, according to the study, are hotly contested among scientists.

“Most report some changes in the behavior of the sharks involved, but the significance and severity of these changes is the subject of intense and ongoing debate,” said the study, called Blood in the Water: Shark Feeding, Tourism and the Law.

Hammerschlag disagreed, saying a shark wouldn’t connect a boat with a person.

“The idea is to attract the shark to the boat to get their interest, but the interest may not last very long,” he said. “And often when the activity stops, the animals go back to their normal stuff and don’t seem to hang out in those areas.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 15, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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