How Much Tourism is Too Much?
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.
Last year, cage diving and sport fishing were suspended between May and December to evaluate the impact of tourism on the protected white sharks. The Mexican Government said the closure was intended to gather information to adopt the best sustainability practices that guarantee their conservation.
However, unlike the blue waters of Isla Guadalupe, the future of shark dive tourism is not crystal clear.
The new policy statement 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 as the Guadalupe Island Biosphere Reserve in 2005, 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 and photograph white sharks safely.
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 of cage diving operators by SEMARNAT (Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources).
The popularity of Isla Guadalupe with shark divers is due to the water clarity, the aggregation of sharks, and the predictable seasonality, which means that the sharks can easily be studied and identified. Scientists have identified and named more than 380 individuals that routinely visit Isla Guadalupe between July and December.
On average, vessels visited the island over 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 impressive ocean predators. The industry has attracted some criticism due to chum adding excessive nutrients to the water. Some white sharks, a protected species in Mexican waters, have injured themselves by striking the cages or becoming entangled in them. In these cases, including one where a shark suffered death from entangling in a cage catalyzed immediate response by the government, followed by brief shutdowns and response by the industry to mitigate the cause.
The Management Plan refers among other things, to bad practices including mishandling the bait used to attract sharks; divers swimming outside of cages; drones disturbing seal colonies; and dumping of pollutants .
There is no question shark tourism has been a significant contributor to the economy of Baja California, with a host of small businesses trading on its popularity. The question that has arisen is how much tourism is too much? Ethical concerns have been raised by some experts, and in California a law was passed in 2022 banning white shark attractants over concerns of behavior modification. A 2021 scientific study in the Journal Marine Policy found that the number of cage-diving vessels at Guadalupe Island increased from six to ten between 2014 and 2019. During the 2019 season, an estimated 2,800 people dove in cages to see sharks.
The U.S. non-profit Shark Allies has estimated the value of the Guadalupe white shark population at $123.1 million over 30 years. Based on economic, aesthetic, and conservation values, the average value of the 113 individual white sharks interacting with dive boats is more than $1 million each. More conservative estimates place the value at 25 million/year, still a significant contribution to the Mexican economy. The benefit of photographers and bloggers sharing the beauty and power of white shark has an immeasurable benefit to shark awareness, yet many programs filmed at Guadalupe have the opposite message of the dangerous, ferocious predator.
Some operators, and in the social media sphere have raised concerns that, while the closure is seemingly well-intentioned, the new management plan does not have any provision to prevent illegal fishing and protect the sharks. There are studies of killing white sharks illegally and export of fish byproducts including Totoaba fish maw, sea cucumbers and shark fins exported illegally under the auspices of the Sinaloa Cartel, a 2021 Brookings Report analysis and other citations are confined to the Gulf of Mexico and not the outer Baja coast.
The licensed shark-vessel operators do act as watchdogs while the sharks are present. However, Dr. Michael Domeier of the Marne Conservation Science Institute (who benefits from much of the community science shark ID derived from the dive industry) observed that no poaching activity was observed during the 2022 shutdown.
Shark Stewards, is concerned about both the illegal poaching of shark fins especially from less glamorous species like reef sharks, mako and blue sharks, which are highly valued in Asia. One recent study discovered over half the shark fins in the Taiwan market were from threatened or protected species, including some white sharks represented. One intensive fishing effort by an industrial longliner could possibly wipe out the Guadalupe population, but the new technology like satellite observations from Global Fish Watch, vessel monitoring systems like AIS required on large fishing vessels, and the difficulty of fishing 4000 pound sharks unobserved makes this level of illegal fishing less likely than many believe. Having worked in the shark fin trade in Asia for 16 years, we find that the dorsal fins from large sharks like Basking, Whale and White Sharks (all CITES protected species and almost impossible to legally import/export) are used more for display than for shark fin soup. In the Gulf of California, Mexican Cartels have been implicated in smuggling shark fins, sea turtle shells and the Totoaba fish maw trade leading to the imminent extinction of the Vaquita porpoise. There is no evidence of cartel supported illegal activity on the coast, but the fins of a white shark, would have high value in the shark fin trade, and more readily smuggled into the market.
However, even the loss of several mature breeding females could have immediate impact on the population recovery of this threatened species. The loss of the economic benefit of the $250 USD /person park fee per five day dive, and the loss of Baja California staff employed by the industry is also significant. There is also a significant amount of money, perhaps more than reaches Mexican hands, from the cage diving operators based in the United States.
The situation is unclear and evolving as this article goes to press. We have reached out to the Mexican government, scientists and all major operators either through booking agents or the operators themselves for comment. One Mexican scientist confirmed the closure includes researchers at this time.
The water becomes more murky from the messages from long term operators without clear consensus or conclusion whether white shark diving will occur at Guadalupe in 2023. At least two operators have claimed legal actions against the Mexican government, although details have not been shared in what court or against whom.
One venerable institution The Horizon, among the first to offer commercial dive trips to Guadalupe ran by the Grivetto family, has sold their vessel and claimed bankruptcy citing over 100,000 in legal fees and loss of business to Covid.
From the MV Horizon Update on Facebook January 22 titled – New Beginnings – Company Sold
“Unfortunately, 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.
“The closure was the second hit we took after COVID, handing back thousands to our divers at that time. The dive industry is a tough industry and we get that. We fought pretty hard for Guadalupe with our lawsuit challenging the 2022 closure but we came up short and we apologise 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. We are fully committed to doing the right thing as we always have. Other vessels are not giving diver money back for the Guadalupe closure and that’s unfortunate. This is not the way the dive industry should treat it’s valued guests.”
According to Mike Lever of Nautilus liveaboards, 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.”
Facebook messages on the Guadalupe Island Shark Group Page complain of lack of refunds by Nautilus, or offers of dives elsewhere at a lesser rate. Mr. Levy remains hopeful that the season will open, but the Nautilus site has removed booking for Guadalupe in 2023. A member of the Guadalupe Island Shark Page praised Islander Charters for a quick response and full refund from a 2022 cancellation. Although not actively taking reservations, Islander Charters appears hopeful with a page dedicated to Guadalupe dives listed in 2023 as Coming Soon, stay tuned.
The travel and adventure group Be a Shark has a website monitoring the closure status and listing actions and updates regarding accessing the island. From January 26 Instagram response from the tourism operators Be a Shark: “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 face check them. Take a look at www.beashark.team”
Not perfect, shark dive ecotourism can have negative impacts on shark behavior, with potential injury and impacts of a threatened species, including energetic and reproductive impacts. 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 better understand them scientifically.
Note: The Horizon New Beginnings has started a Facebook site called Guadalupe Skywatch Program asking their divers who are still interested in #guadalupeisland and the fate of the great white sharks like, share, and follow the Guadalupe Island Skywatch page. They are raising funds to support satellite monitoring to watch over the island for illegal shark fishing in the coming years providing a 24/7 conservation tool. Your support at this page will help. One last thing we can do for the sharks as we cannot monitor them in person.
Adapted from an Article Written for Undercurrent Magazine
David McGuire, Executive Director