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Marine Life & Conservation

New study values Madagascar Whale Shark Tourism at $1.5 Million amid calls for stronger protections

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  • The three-month whale shark tourism season in Nosy Be (NW Madagascar) has been valued at $1.5 million USD 

  • Tourists who visit specifically to swim with whale sharks spend 55% more ($901,274) than ‘casual’ whale shark tourists ($581,239)

  • Calls for sustainable tourism measures to protect whale sharks are overwhelmingly supported by operators and tourists 

  • 67.4% of tourists are more likely to choose a destination if whale sharks are protected

Credit: Dr. Simon J. Pierce

Credit: Dr. Simon J. Pierce

A new study published in the journal Tourism in Marine Environments has valued the whale shark tourism industry in Madagascar’s Nosy Be for the first time, with the three-month season worth $1.5 million USD to the local economy.* The study has revealed the economic benefit that whale sharks provide as the region prepares for the return of tourists following COVID-19.

Stella Diamant, the project’s leader and research associate with the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF), as well as the founder of the Madagascar Whale Shark Project, said, “this study has confirmed the importance of sustainable whale shark tourism to Madagascar’s economy, particularly during its pandemic recovery. Considering the region’s international reputation as a whale shark hotspot, and the presence of an international airport, it’s likely that its shark tourism industry will grow considerably once international travel resumes.”

Credit: Madagascar Whale Shark Project

Credit: Madagascar Whale Shark Project

The study found that ‘dedicated’ whale shark divers – travelers who visited specifically to swim with whale sharks – spent six times as much as ‘casual’ whale shark tourists ($547 vs. $92 respectively). Despite making up just a fifth of respondents (20.5%), the expenditure of this group was worth 55% more overall ($901,274) than causal whale shark divers ($581,239).

Both tourists (93.4%) and operators (91.7%) overwhelmingly support formal protections for whale sharks in Madagascar.**

The majority (67.4%) of tourists stated they were more likely to choose a tourism destination if whale sharks were protected.

Despite being globally endangered, whale sharks are not formally protected in Malagasy waters and are threatened by fishery bycatch, collisions with vessels, and pollution. Tour operators overwhelmingly supported legal protection for whale sharks in Madagascar and highlighted the potential to introduce regulations to avoid overcrowding, as interest in swimming with the sharks grows internationally. Operators suggested levying fines or sanctions for anyone behaving irresponsibly around the sharks.

Credit: Dr. Simon J. Pierce

Credit: Dr. Simon J. Pierce

Dr. Jackie Ziegler from the University of Victoria in Canada and lead author of the study said, “it’s far more difficult to scale back activities compared to managing tourism sustainably from the start. Our work has shown clear support from both tourism operators, and the tourists themselves, to ensure that swimming with whale sharks in Madagascar is a world-class ecotourism experience.”

MMF Principal Scientist Dr. Simon Pierce added, “Madagascar is best-known now for its amazing land animals, such as lemurs and chameleons, but the marine wildlife is equally spectacular. It’s fantastic to see that Nosy Be tourism operators are committed to protecting these gentle giants as well as high-quality ecotourism.”

This study was led by the Madagascar Whale Shark Project in collaboration with the Marine Megafauna Foundation, University of Victoria, Marine Wildlife Conservation Society, and Florida International University. It was supported by MADA Megafauna, Aqua-Firma, Ocean Giants Trust, and the Vocatio Foundation.

For more information about the Marine Megafauna Foundation visit their website by clicking here.

Nick and Caroline (Frogfish Photography) are a married couple of conservation driven underwater photo-journalists and authors. Both have honours degrees from Manchester University, in Environmental Biology and Biology respectively, with Nick being a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a former high school science teacher with a DipEd in Teaching Studies. Caroline has an MSc in Animal Behaviour specializing in Caribbean Ecology. They are multiple award-winning photographers and along with 4 published books, feature regularly in the diving, wildlife and international press They are the Underwater Photography and Deputy Editors at Scubaverse and Dive Travel Adventures. Winners of the Caribbean Tourism Organization Photo-journalist of the Year for a feature on Shark Diving in The Bahamas, and they have been placed in every year they have entered. Nick and Caroline regularly use their free time to visit schools, both in the UK and on their travels, to discuss the important issues of marine conservation, sharks and plastic pollution. They are ambassadors for Sharks4Kids and founders of SeaStraw. They are Dive Ambassadors for The Islands of The Bahamas and are supported by Mares, Paralenz, Nauticam and Olympus. To find out more visit www.frogfishphotography.com

Gear News

Fourth Element X Sea Shepherd

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This year on Black Friday, fourth element announced their new partnership with Sea Shepherd, encouraging people to move away from mindless purchasing and to opt-in to supporting something powerful.

For 40 years Sea Shepherd, a leading non-profit organisation, has been patrolling the high seas with the sole mission to protect and conserve the world’s oceans and marine wildlife. They work to defend all marine wildlife, from whales and dolphins, to sharks and rays, to fish and krill, without exception.

Inspired by Sea Shepherd’s mission, fourth element have created a collection of fourth element X Sea Shepherd limited edition products for ocean lovers and protectors, with 15% of every sale going to the Sea Shepherd fund to help continue to drive conservation efforts globally.

“Working with Sea Shepherd gives fourth element the opportunity to join forces with one of the largest active conservation organisations in the world to try to catalyse change in people’s attitudes and behaviour. Fourth Element’s products are designed, developed and packaged with the intention of minimising our impact on the ocean environment, and with this partnership, we will be supporting the work of Sea Shepherd, in particular in their work on dealing with the twin threats of Ghost fishing nets and plastic pollution.”

Jim Standing fourth element co-founder

Read fourth element’s Sea Shepherd Opinion Piece HERE

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Marine Life & Conservation

Nurse Shark with rare skin pigmentation recorded in Honduras

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One of the defining features of nurse sharks is a brown coloration that is present over their entire body. However, earlier this year, recreational divers in Utila, Honduras stumbled upon a unique individual with a rare condition that completely alters the typical pigmentation pattern in the skin.

The finding was recently published in a new study, “Observations of hypomelanosis in the nurse shark Ginglymostoma cirratum,” in the Journal of Fish Biology, led by researchers at Beneath The Waves (BTW). Working with members of the Caribbean Shark Coalition, the team at BTW saw this reported finding as an opportunity to emphasize the value of citizen science for shark and ray conservation. The diverse, non-traditional author list of this publication demonstrates that science can and should be made accessible to those beyond the scientific community in order to add to the scientific database of sharks, marine life, and marine habitats.

This sighting became the first documented account of a nurse shark with piebaldism, a rare skin condition that results in a partial loss of body pigmentation, with eyes remaining as their regular coloration. The unique coloring made this nurse shark easily identifiable, and the divers saw it on two different dives in two different locations.

Piebaldism is part of a larger suite of pigmentation deficiencies called hypomelanosis. This includes albinism, which results in a complete loss of pigmentation in the skin and iris, and leucism which causes total or partial loss of body pigment and a blue coloration to the iris and body.

Hypomelanosis is incredibly rare in the animal kingdom, particularly in sharks, skates, and rays. Only about 5% of these species have been documented with these conditions, one being a tawny nurse shark with albinism, and another being a nurse shark with leucism.

In nature, if an animal relies on camouflage to hunt or avoid predation, unusual skin conditions could affect its ability to do this successfully, ultimately impacting its chance of survival. With the rarity of these conditions in sharks, little is known about their effects.

This particular individual was about an average size for the species, at approximately 6 feet in length. Because of this size, we can assume that it has been able to hunt and avoid predators successfully to reach maturity. Since nurse sharks have a generalist lifestyle where they eat a wide range of foods and can survive in a variety of conditions, this was somewhat expected. Even so, this rare observation calls for more research on the potential consequences of hypomelanosis on the survivability of sharks, skates, and rays. This is only the second time this species has been scientifically documented to have a skin condition that can affect their pigmentation.

Photos: Ellie Hopgood.

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