Nursing the Nurses
Updated: Apr 26
In recent years there has been very serious debate about whether feeding sharks for the purposes of tourism (known as "provisioning") is good for the animals. There has been concern that this activity could affect the health of the sharks, or even cause changes in their behaviour, which could be dangerous to humans. It has also been suggested that this kind of tourism is exploitative and unethical... So, let's take a look at an in-depth case study and you can decide for yourself whether you feel provisioning is good or bad for sharks...
Belize, located on the east coast of Central America, is a hotspot for marine tourism; visitors can enjoy boat trips, snorkelling and wonderful SCUBA diving. Connected to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system (the second largest reef in the world), the waters surrounding Belize are home to an incredible array of fishes, marine mammals, turtles and corals (Jackson, 2020).
These waters are also a hotbed of shark biodiversity; with over 350 different species found there, including hammerheads (Sphyrna species), multiple different reef sharks (Carcharhinus species) and even whale sharks (Rhinocodon typus).
Therefore, shark diving tourism has become very popular in Belize, especially at a site dubbed the Shark and Ray Village within the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve (CCMR). At this location provisioning is used to draw sharks into close proximity with tourists, for easier viewing from the boats and for a more immersive experience whilst snorkelling or SCUBA diving (Jackson, 2020).
In a recent study, scientists sought to evaluate how these provisioning activities impacted on a particular shark species: the nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), which is commonly seen during trips to the Shark and Ray Village (Jackson, 2020).
Scientists observed the sharks around provisioning sites and recorded their behaviour using video cameras. They then analysed how many individual sharks were present in each video frame over a period of 5 minutes (to determine their abundance) and noted certain behaviours they exhibited (to study how their behaviour changed between a natural and a tourist site) (Jackson, 2020).
The researchers discovered that the abundance of nurse sharks rose rapidly when the boats began provisioning. This is no surprise, as that is the goal... but, they also noted that the nurse sharks actually arrived at the boats before they even began provisioning. This shows evidence of "habituation" to the tourism activities. This is a type of "conditioning"; meaning that the nurse sharks had learned to associate the boats with a food reward (Jackson, 2020).
The study also showed that nurse sharks displayed other behavioural changes in response to the provisioning activities. The researchers noted that the sharks came into close contact with people around provisioning sites, when normally they would display "avoidance behaviours" (actively staying away from people in the water) (Jackson, 2020).
They also found that the sharks shifted their natural "diel" activity pattern away from being naturally nocturnal. The sharks were more active during the day at provisioning sites (when they would naturally rest) and did not hunt at night, as normal (Jackson, 2020).
Whatsmore, comparing videos recorded when no provisioning boats were present and when the boats were around, but not provisioning, against when the boats were actively feeding the sharks, nurse shark aggression was noticeably different. Both "conspecific aggression" (aggressive behaviours towards other nurse sharks) and "interspecific aggression" (aggression towards different species of animals) were much more common when the boats were provisioning. These findings are worrying because they show that this tourism could actually be damaging to marine life (Jackson, 2020).
Similarly, the scientists also noticed several sharks had significant injuries from boat propellors. They were concerned that these boat strikes would be more common because the sharks will come into closer proximity when provisioning is occurring. This could obviously be very bad for the sharks and raises an ethical question - is it acceptable to put a target species at risk for human entertainment?
What is uncertain is the effect that other behavioural changes might have on the nurse sharks themselves... there have been conflicting results regarding how behavioural shifts around provisioning sites can impact the sharks. Some studies have suggested that sharks might have health problems from sub-standard foods supplied or from the increased transmission of parasites and/or disease due to their high density around provisioning sites. Other studies have shown that there are no behavioural changes in response to provisioning or that there are no long-term health impacts even when there are. We simply need to do more species-specific research before we can be certain (Gallagher et al, 2015).
What is clear though, is there are many benefits from shark diving tourism... In general, marine tourism increases public awareness, open avenues for public education, improves economies and generates funding for conservation initiatives. In Belize, an average of 156,180 tourists participate in marine tourism activities every year, which generates approximately US $183 million annually. This means more jobs, and better regional and national economies, which benefits the local people in many ways (Jackson, 2020).
The activity also creates a significant opportunity for public outreach and education. Taking tourists for a memorable experience with sharks can help to shift their attitude and gain support for conservation initiatives. Furthermore, the capitol generated by these visitors can fund this conservation (Gallagher et al, 2015).
The Caye Caulker marine reserve encompasses over 9,000 acres of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, as a category VI protected area. The goal of the reserve is to protect its marine environment from overexploitation by prohibiting fishing and controlling wildlife encounters. Using the marine reserve for tourism means that Belize is exploiting its natural resources in a sustainable fashion and placing economic value on live sharks, rather than profiting from their extraction (Jackson, 2020).
There are certainly pros and cons to nurse shark tourism in Belize, so I will let you come to your own conclusion, but in my opinion, shark dive tourism is a very savvy way to reduce consumptive shark exploitation. As long as the tourism operator is operating within the law and not placing animals or people at undue risk of injury, I believe that this type of tourism could be an incredible force for good. In a world where the number of endangered species are climbing every year, I feel that anything which can offer some protection to sharks must do more good than harm.
If you would like to learn more about shark diving tourism, you can check out my other Ecotourism articles. To learn how to dive with sharks reponsibly, you can read Raise the Bar! or take a course to become a PADI AWARE Shark Specialist Diver.
Gallagher AJ, Vianna GMS, Papastamatiou YP, Mcdonald C, Guttridge TL & Hammerschlag, N (2015). Biological effects, conservation potential, and research priorities of shark diving tourism. Biological Conservation, 184, 365-379.
Jackson CM (2020). To feed or not to feed: Examining the effects of provisioning tourism on nurse sharks in Caye Caulker, Belize. Master's Thesis, Nova Southeastern University. Retrieved from NSUWorks, 11. Access Online.