Tourism and Research Impacts on Marine Mammals: A Bold Future Informed by Research and Technology
Marine Mammals: the Evolving Human Factor
Whale watching, Tourism, Research, Disturbance, Conservation, Management, Sustainability
Tourism and recreational activities now threaten the conservation status of 21% of the marine mammal species recognized by the IUCN. In the past two decades, concerted efforts have been made to better understand the biological relevance of behavioral responses of marine mammals to whale-watching disturbance within theoretical frameworks. These frameworks aim to evaluate how behavioral changes caused by disturbance may result in population effects by affecting critical life functions, such as survival, reproduction and feeding. Most recent efforts have made it more feasible to quantify how consequences of a disturbance can affect vital rates and, in turn, population level consequences. These efforts have come hand-in-hand with the advent of innovative research technology and analytical laboratory approaches which are providing previously unobtainable data streams, including detailed information on individual body condition, energy expenditure and energy acquisition. Novel techniques in the fields of metabolomics and endocrinology are providing tools to integrate the many dimensions of disturbance-related changes in the body to derive measures of ecological health. Lastly, new modeling techniques are now available that link changes in behavior to changes in health, vital rates and population dynamics. Our chapter discusses various management approaches to the industry and highlights that it was only in 2020 that the promising concept of maximum sustainable tourism yield (MSTY) was explicitly stated as a management value to track when regulating and managing whale watching. The recent advances in analytical and laboratory approaches coupled with introduction of the MSTY concept provide promising pathways to both evaluate biological significant impacts of whale-watching and new management approaches. We argue that it is important to consider the outlook for marine mammal tourism moving forward, with an understanding of the recent and perhaps current global tourism context; i.e., the industry was paralyzed by the imposition of unprecedented border closures and travel restrictions caused by the COVID-pandemic. The focus now falls upon the potential to rebuild a new, post-COVID-19 tourism system. One school of thought in rebuilding arises in response to growing concerns expressed about the global tourism system prior to the pandemic. Concerns include high economic leakage, environmental sustainability issues, and compromised social license driven by over-tourism. There is a unique opportunity to reset the tourism system toward an emerging nature tourism paradigm that encourages and supports businesses to be accountable for positive environmental, social, cultural and economic outcomes. It will be necessary for marine mammal tourism to embrace a paradigmatic shift from exhaustive (volume growth) to regenerative tourism which, rather than depleting the nature upon which businesses depend, will be geared toward building natural capital over time. This will require a reconceptualization of visitor experiences, which may be augmented through new technologies. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are powerful tools that allow people to achieve immersive experiences of nature without the need for travel. VR/AR offer the industry opportunities to engage groups that may be constrained by physical or age-related disabilities, as well as those who may be facing travel restrictions, or confronting moral decisions associated with carbon emissions, or direct/indirect impacts arising from tourist encounters with wild animals. VR/AR may overcome the conundrum for close encounters with wildlife without having to expose animals repeatedly to close encounters with people. We argue that there is a pathway to move forward with a less biological impactive whale watch industry in light of the more-informed science basis available coupled with new low-impact marine mammal tourism opportunities. But will the marine mammal tourism industry continue to be fueled by a ‘business-as-usual’ approach which is based on economic prosperity? Or will the industry follow a more progressive all-encompassing approach that embraces and supports tourism to be accountable for positive environmental, social, and cultural, as well as economic outcomes? We argue: be creative, be bold, and be progressive.