This week we took part in our first survey at "Shark Ray alley", a tourism hot spot amongst a shallow alley of seagrass within the Caye Caulker marine reserve.
Prior to the survey, Sophie took us through some basic education on the natural behaviour of the southern stingray and Nurse shark vs the unnatural behaviours seen at shark Ray alley.
From the moment you enter the water you can immediately see the impact humans have had on their behaviour.
One of the clearest behaviour changes is that Nurse sharks naturally are predominantly nocturnal. In shark ray alley this is not the case! There are large groups of nurse sharks waiting around the boats in hopes to be fed. This is not natural at all and disturbs both their feeding and sleeping habits.
Both the nurse sharks and southern sting rays react to the sound of boat engines and people entering the water. The nurse sharks will have a flurry of activity as soon as a boat engine can be heard. You can see large groups travelling towards the incoming boats. When the engine is stopped and no food is present, they immediately turn away to swim to a place with less disruption so they can rest on the seabed.
The rays are even more sensitive to the disturbance caused by humans. Rays have been observed to change behaviour when humans enter the water.
The unnatural behaviour first developed through fishermen gutting their catch into the sea. This was where the sharks and rays first began to adjust their natural behaviour to take advantage of the "easy" food source.
Tourism caught on to the idea that the public would pay to see the animals up close and began feeding the animals themselves.
This brings a second threat to both species in that what the tourist boats feed them is far from their natural diet. It has been noticed that the animals in the area are significantly smaller than in the undisturbed areas.
Both sharks and rays are naturally solitary with the exception of when they need to mate. Therefore, large populations accumulating in a small area creates additional stress for the animals. Both sharks and rays are often observed behaving aggressively towards each other. This is thought to increase stress and impact the overall wellbeing of the animals.
Most tourists visiting the area have no idea what they view is unnatural behaviour. In most cases they're sold a "humanised" version of the sharks and rays and that they're enjoying the human presence. This is far from the case and most tourists do not realise they're contributing to harming both the sharks and rays long term survival.
With just a small amount of education the public could understand the negative impact tourism has. This could help build a more protected and sustainable industry that ensures the shark and ray populations are healthy, happy and here for years to come.
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