Mexico Bans Great White Shark Tourism

The crystal clear blue waters off Guadalupe Island are quite.

It isn’t rare to not have many boats around the volcanic island around this time of year, since peak season for seeing great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) is July to November. Thousands travel from around the world to observe these animals in their natural environment, both underwater and from high in the skies using drones.

But this July will be different – the tourist boats won’t be welcome, with Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources banning shark-related tourism activities at this popular destination. “In the Reserve, it will not be possible to carry out the observation of white sharks for tourism purposes, to avoid altering their habitat, behavior and feeding sites, and thereby preserve and conserve the species,” the new Management Program states. Mexican authorities have already imposed the new ban after suspending shark-watching and sport fishing activities from May to December last year to study the issue.

Guadalupe Island, or Isla Guadalupe, is located off the west coast of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula in the Pacific Ocean. Seals, bluefin tuna, and other diverse marine life flourish in the warm, clear waters surrounding the small island, making it an ideal environment for great white sharks. Because of this, during 2005, the Mexican government designated the island and its surrounding marine area as a biosphere reserve. Since then, great white populations have increased around the island over the past two decades, with males returning annually and pregnant females returning every two years.

Known as one of the hotspots to dive with the massive sharks, this ban has upset the numerous tour companies who operate here, “effectively [ending] the once-busy Guadalupe Island tourism economy,” says CNN. The latest numbers show that the shark cage tourism industry at Isla Guadalupe attracted about 2,800 visitors in 2019. And as of 2019, there were 10 shark cage diving vessel operators, up from six in 2014. In some cases, these businesses have already announced closures, offering full refunds to customers; in others, they are pivoting.

In addition to the economic impacts, some say this ban will limit research into great white sharks here, since cage-diving charter boats offered researchers a cost-efficient way to study them. And despite the ban aiming to protect the sharks (and their greater environment), some say this ban may do the opposite with the lack of tour operators in the area leading some to worry that poachers will move in and begin illegally targeting the sharks. Listed since 1996 as globally ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, their population has dipped and now steadily risen in some parts of the world as protection measures have been put into place to shield them from the fisheries. “Over three generation lengths (159 years), the white shark is estimated to be increasing in abundance in the Northeast Pacific and Indian Ocean and declining in abundance from historic levels in the Northwest Atlantic and South Pacific,” says the IUCN.

Arguments both for and against the ban have been rampant on the internet. Many believe the cage diving should stay, pointing that shark-related tourism like cage diving helps foster pro-shark sentiments that have been rampantly negative since World War II. By allowing people to observe great whites in a ‘controlled environment,’ some believe they will be more inclined to support conservation efforts to protect them. But other scientists say there have been long-standing ethical concerns about cage-diving with sharks that have yet to be properly addressed, both here and in other parts of the world. There has been finger-pointing to baiting and chumming waters as the reason for some of these predators displaying changed behavior, putting everyone at risk – especially when it is done improperly and leads to a shark being in the cage!

It is not clear how this will impact reseach off Guadalupe yet, or whether we’ve seen the last of the ‘Shark Week’ and ‘SharkFest’ shows held at this iconic location. Those who do business here are not holding their breath on the island being re-opened any time soon. Horizon Charters gave their grim take on the news: “Mexico has adopted the new management plan for Guadalupe Island, it is now law, and it prohibits all tourism activities and film and TV at the island. To change this status a new management plan must be written and approved and that will take years – if Mexico has any desire to reverse this decision. As with Cedros Island, closed over 25 years ago, Mexico has not seen the need to reopen it. As it stands there is no mechanism that will magically reopen Guadalupe, no legal challenge, no petition, or pressure campaign. It is closed.”

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