Is eco-tourism harming whales and dolphins?
Interesting article looking at new research examining how whale watching and swimming with wild dolphins could be harming the mammals.
For animal lovers, the chance to see majestic creatures such as whales in their natural habitat is often the high point of a holiday.
But conservationists have warned that boat trips to watch whales and dolphins might be stressing them out and putting their survival in jeopardy.
Minke whales off the coast of Iceland have been observed breathing heavily and speeding away from tourist boats, while populations of bottlenose dolphins in New Zealand on popular boat routes have plummeted.
Some experts think is because they are being driven from their preferred feeding grounds by well-meaning tourists eager to see their favourite animal.
Boat trips have been considered an example of ‘friendly’ eco-tourism, but some routes are affecting cetacean behaviour and even causing deaths by collisions, conservationists at the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) in Glasgow, were told last week.
Scientists are most concerned about disruption causing marine animals to expend extra energy or failing to eat in their preferred areas, Nature reported.
David Lusseau of the University of Aberdeen showed that minke whales swimming in Faxaflói Bay in Iceland sped away from whale-watching boats.
Earlier this year he also reported that the whales breathed more heavily in the presence of a boat trip – just like they do when they are stressed and encounter a predator.
The value of boat trips
Many people may think – why not stop eco-tourism boat trips all together? But they offer jobs to locals who may traditionally have hunted the animals. Such trips also spread an important message of conservation. By attracting tourists, they also become a valuable commodity to be kept safe.
The number of people taking eco-tourism boat trips is thought to be around 13 million across 119 countries. The 2008 figure shows a massive rise in popularity compared with 1991, when four million people in 31 countries took the trips. In 2008, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, estimated the eco-tourism industry was worth a staggering $2.1 billion (£1.3bn).
While a new study will note that numbers of whales have not been affected by boat trips in the area, Dr Lusseau has shown that similar trips have led to depleted bottlenose dolphin populations in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand.
He fears the animals could become extinct in a matter of decades, as they appear to be driven away from feeding grounds by the tourist boats. In order to tackle the problem, Dr Lusseau thinks scientists must work out which populations are most at risk, by looking at the short-term effects of eco-tourism and modelling them over long periods.
This way, they could separate adaptations from long-term threats.
He thinks that measures such as minimum distances between animals and boats could help, if they are standardised and enforced.
Some scientists are concerned that eco-tourism trips are killing animals one at a time and say that boat trips could prove to be the nail in the coffin for struggling species that have previously been threatened by hunting.
Read the research in Nature