and there are questions why
by David McGuire from the February, 2023 issue of Undercurrent
As of January 10, 2023, cage diving with great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe, 400 miles southwest of Ensenada, Mexico, is permanently prohibited. The Mexican Government’s ban covers all tourism inside the reserve, including film production and liveaboard diving.
But will it stand?
Last year, cage diving and sport fishing were suspended between May and December to evaluate tourism’s impact on the several hundred protected white sharks congregating there. The Mexican Government said the closure was intended to gather information to adopt the best sustainability practices that guarantee their conservation.
|Isla Guadalupe is one of the top destinations globally to view, photograph, and study white sharks safely.
However, unlike the blue waters of Isla Guadalupe, the future of shark dive tourism is not crystal clear.
The new policy issued under a Management Plan for Guadalupe on January 9 states: “White shark observation may not be carried out in the Reserve for tourist purposes, to avoid altering their habitat, behavior, and feeding sites, and thereby preserve and conserve the species”‘
Declared the Guadalupe Island Biosphere Reserve in 2007, it falls under the protection of Mexico’s Natural Protected Areas Commission. With its clear, calm waters and reliable seasonal white shark population, Isla Guadalupe is one of the top destinations globally to view, photograph, and study white sharks safely. Scientists have named more than 380 individuals that routinely visit Isla Guadalupe between July and December.
Great White Tourism
Organized shark dive tourism began in the early 2000s by several operators, including San Diego-based Horizon Charters. Since then, the cage diving industry had grown significantly with new operators, leading to increased regulation by SEMARNAT (Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources).
On average, vessels visited for five days, charging each diver $4000 or more. Sharks are attracted with substances like fish blood and oil, ground fish, and tuna heads. Floating metal-barred cages with a closable top are secured to the vessel’s side. Openings in the sides of the cages allow photographers to capture close images of the sharks. The industry has attracted some criticism that the chum adds excessive nutrients to the water. A few white sharks have injured themselves by striking the cages or becoming entangled in them, and one died. These incidents brought brief shutdowns and subsequent industry responses to mitigate the causes.
Shark tourism has been a significant contributor to the economy of Baja California, with a host of small businesses trading on its popularity. The U.S. non-profit Shark Allies estimates the value of the Guadalupe white shark population at $123.1 million over 30 years and the value of the 113 individual white sharks interacting with dive boats at more than $1 million each. However, much of the money generated by channels like The Discovery Channel and National Geographic benefits U.S. companies more than Mexico.
The Threat of Poaching
While the great white shark is a protected species, the new management plan has no provision to prevent illegal fishing and protect the sharks. In some parts of Mexico, but not yet the outer Baja coast, great white sharks have been killed illegally, and fish byproducts, including shark fins, have been exported illegally through the Sinaloa Cartel.
Licensed shark-vessel operators are potent watchdogs while the sharks are present. However, during the 2022 shutdown, Dr. Michael Domeier of the Marne Conservation Science Institute says no poaching was observed.
My organization, Shark Stewards, is concerned about illegal poaching and the trade of shark fins, especially from less glamorous species like reef sharks, mako, and blue sharks, which are highly valued in Asia. A recent study discovered over half the shark fins in the Taiwan market were from threatened or protected species, including some white sharks. A single intensive fishing effort by an industrial longliner could wipe out the Guadalupe population. However, new technology like satellite observations from Global Fish Watch, vessel monitoring systems like AIS that are required on large fishing vessels, and the difficulty of fishing for 4000-pound sharks unobserved make this less likely than many believe.
Having worked in the shark fin trade in Asia for 16 years, Shark Stewards has found that dorsal fins from large sharks like basking, whale, and white sharks (all CITES-protected species and almost impossible to import or export legally) are used more for display than for shark fin soup.
However, the loss of even a few mature breeding females could immediately impact the population recovery of this threatened species. The loss of the economic benefit of the $250/person park fee and the loss of Baja California staff employment is also significant. There is also a substantial amount of money lost by shark diving operators based in Mexico, as well as in the United States.
As this article goes to press, the future of the Guadalupe ban is unclear and evolving. We have contacted the Mexican Government, scientists, and all major operators through booking agents or the operators themselves for comment. Of the seven operators we contacted, none is booking for 2023. One Mexican scientist on our team confirmed the statement of the Management Plan for Guadalupe and that the park remains closed without any immediate news of change.
Dive Operators Respond
At least two operators have claimed there are legal actions against the Mexican Government, although we have not received details about the lawsuits or the courts in which they were filed.
The liveaboard Horizon has been sold. The owners posted on Facebook, “The closure of Guadalupe Island has left us financially tapped out. We cannot do the right thing by our divers with $500,000 in refunds and stay in business. So we made the decision to sell the company to a new operator who will be taking the MV Horizon in a new direction at the end of February 2023 . . . . We fought pretty hard for Guadalupe with our lawsuit challenging the 2022 closure, but we came up short, and we apologize to you for that. We really tried.
“The MV Horizon will continue to refund diver deposits, and we are asking if you can leave a little behind to consider it.”
But Mike Lever of Nautilus liveaboards said in a quote to ScubaTravel.com: “Legally Guadalupe Island is not yet closed. The Government is illegally trying to push through a new management plan that will allow commercial fishing to continue but stop all tourist activities. If they are successful, it dooms the shark population to extermination from poaching and illegal fishing. We’re fighting that in court and with every resource that we have. Their process is illegal in that they are required to consult with the consejo (council of stakeholders), hold public hearings, and such. They can’t just write a management plan and make it the law.” Nautilus is not booking for Guadalupe in 2023.
The Mexican-owned company Pacific Fleet, which operates at Guadalupe, is not booking for Guadalupe. In an email, they said, “Unfortunately, as of now, the park remains closed, but as you can imagine, it is highly political. We are working together with all operators to fight this decision. There is still a lot of movement, so we are hopeful to be able to offer Guadalupe in the future again.”
The travel and adventure group Be a Shark monitors the closure status and lists actions and updates on its website. A January 26 Instagram post said, “The island has been officially closed until further notice. I would be concerned at this point by any operator who is still taking any $ or deposits for 2023. We are tracking the updates on our site once we fact-check them. Take a look at www.beashark.team.
Shark dive ecotourism can negatively impact shark behavior, with potential injury and impacts on a threatened species, with energetic and reproductive effects. However, proper oversight by SEMARNAT, the benefit to the Mexican economy, science, and the ambassadorship that shark tourism provides, exceeds the potential harm to sharks and may be the best solution to save and understand them.
David McGuire, Executive Director
Shark Stewards, a non-profit project of the Earth Island Institute.