One of Western Australia’s biggest tourism drawcards, whale shark eco-tourism, has no negative long-term effect on the animals and their environment, a new study has found.
The first multi-year study to investigate the issue suggests that eco-tourism, when well regulated—does not affect whale sharks and their migratory patterns.
The research, conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of WA over a five-year period at Ningaloo, found that whale sharks which frequently encountered tourists are just as likely to return to the reef as sharks that only interact with a few humans.
Whale-shark tourism is a rapidly growing industry throughout Australia.
Between 1993 and 2011, the number of whale shark tourists at Ningaloo increased from 1000 to 17,000 with the industry now generating about $6 million each season.
Dr Mark Meekan, principal research scientist with the AIMS, said the Ningaloo ecotourism industry in its current form, was ecologically sustainable into the future.
Dr Meekan said he hoped the study would provide a blueprint for similar work on the impact of eco-tourism on other marine creatures such as whales and mantra rays.
“We can’t rest here—we need to keep these long-term studies going so we can ensure hat we will have these iconic and spectacular animals to enjoy on our coasts for the foreseeable future,” he said.