High vessel traffic involving oil tankers and cruisers have been documented traveling through the whale shark aggregation area as well as where manta rays, five different dolphin species, sailfish and sea turtles among other species live. There are very significant implications for the whole marine ecosystem in this zone, considering that from May through mid-September, thousands of tourists come for a chance to participate in an ecotourism adventure, by swimming along side and getting close to the largest fish in the ocean and threatened species, the whale shark.
“We are not looking to do anything radical. In 2007, NOAA and U.S. Coast Guard shifted ship traffic lanes in Boston Harbor to reduce the risk of collisions between large ships and whale sharks.” said Biól. Rafael de la Parra Venegas, Executive Director, Ch’ooj Ajauil AC (Blue Realm). “We want to do the same – adjust the ship traffic lanes further away from these areas, to improve safety and reduce the chances of collisions with ocean life or with other smaller boats and tourists.”
The communities that are home to Whale Shark Tourism are Isla Mujeres, which is situated right off the coast of Cancun, and Holbox on the Gulf of Mexico, which lies about 70 miles northwest of Isla Mujeres. These three Island communities have seen a major influx in ecotourism during the summer, which has benefited the entire economic structure from travel agencies and transport companies throughout the state to the hotels, restaurants and tour providers on the Islands. This has also changed the attitude of many travelers from viewing these locations as primarily a day trip location to a “stay trip destination.”
“As an eco-tourism company, our programs have boats on the waters everyday with clients who are constantly interacting with the whale shark,” said John Vater, co-founder, Ceviche Tours. “Our clients and guides provide information to the scientific community through photographs taken of the Whale Shark population and uploaded to the international photo identification database, www.whaleshark.org. We are proud to support Ch’ooj Ajauil AC (Blue Realm) and the scientific community in their effort to track, protect and preserve the whale shark.”
The relevance of the area for commercial and sport fishing implies the presence of many small boats and yachts. Tens of thousands of tourists per season come to visit the area, with an economic spill over of 13.5 million US dollars, which benefit operators and stakeholders from Isla Holbox, Chiquilá, Isla Mujeres, Cancún, Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, thus significant actions must be taken to prevent a disaster, before it happens.
Ch’ooj Ajauil AC (Blue Realm) in collaboration with Mote Marine Laboratory, Amigos de Isla Contoy AC, Parque Nacional Isla Contoy, Reserva de la Biosfera Tiburón Ballena, and The Georgia Aquarium, propose the following actions:
1.- Deployment of an AIS ( Automatic Identification System) allowing us to track every ship cruising in the zone, the antenna was set last July 17th 2013 on top of the observation tower in Isla Contoy, and it is on test period.
2.- Written notice to the vessel companies using the area, to request for a 10 mile deviation off East Isla Contoy, (ideally 12 miles), since sometimes they navigate among 5 miles.
3.-Gather collaborative efforts from National and International Organizations, to participate on the Ecosystem preservation and its visitors protection.
“This is a very important issue, one that requires multinational approaches to protecting whale sharks in their aggregation areas and migratory routes,” said Robert E. Hueter, Ph.D., Associate Vice President for Research, Directorate of Marine Biology and Conservation, Director of Shark Research, Mote Marine Laboratory. “We must review government guidelines and make the necessary changes to provide a much safer environment for ships and marine life while at the same time being the least disruptive to the economy in Mexico and elsewhere.”
Tourist activities related to the manta ray, whale sharks and sport fishing, have been regulated by several government offices such as: Harbor Master through Transport and Communications (SCT), Tourism, Environmental agencies (Semarnat and Conanp), Fisheries (Sagarpa), and more. This effort – to establish rules to protect the ecosystem and whale shark -- was furthered by marine biologists and the Mexican government who now require guides to take courses in whale shark biology and preservation through safety and guest information.
“Whale sharks are a threatened species, and it is critical that everyone follows specific rules to continue to protect them,” continued Vater. “We will continue to support the NGOs in the area and worldwide as well as marine biologists from around the world to help bring awareness to the importance of preserving our ecosystem.”
For more information contact:
Rafael de la Parra, Ch’ooj Ajauil AC (Blue Realm): email@example.com,
Al Dove, Georgia Aquarium: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Hueter, Mote Marine Laboratory: email@example.com
Duane Silverstein, Seacology: firstname.lastname@example.org
Catalina Galindo, Amigos de Isla Contoy AC: catalinagalindo@
Sharron McDevitt, on behalf of Ceviche Tours, srmcdevitt12@