The whale shark is the world's largest fish and has become a major tourist attraction. Photo: M. Chow

Tourism puts whale shark under pressure

Student field work: resilience is reduced, better monitoring necessary

- Whale shark tourism must be better monitored in order to minimize negative long-term social-ecological impacts on the whale shark and the local community.

This is one of the key observations from field work conducted by Ecosystems, Governance and Globalisation student Loïs Moriel in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.

As part of her studies, Moriel conducted a 7 month long field work and study of how socio-economic factors influence local stakeholders´ whale shark tourism in the Mexican Atlantic.

Big and vulnerable
The whale shark is the world´s largest fish and inhabits in tropical and temperate waters between 15ºC and 30ºC. The shark is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a vulnerable species and it has become a major tourist attraction due to its docility, accessibility (it gathers in shallow coastal areas) and seasonal predictability.

In order to develop a comprehensive picture of the situation, Moriel conducted 262 surveys with tourists, as well as, in-depth interviews to local operators, guides and captains.

She also conducted five in-depth interviews with representatives from national whale shark conservation institutions.

Increased pressure weakens resilience
Her study shows that the sharks are put under  increasingly intense pressure from the tourist industry: Search time and tour duration has been reduced in order to facilitate more intervals of tourists to visit the shark´s feeding ground.

- This pressure weakens the local community´s capacity to continue sustainable whale shark tourism, Moriel says. She warns that the social-ecological consequences can be extensive unless proper action is taken.

-  It is necessary to limit the number of boats and to better monitor the interaction between the sharks and the tourists in order to minimize negative impacts in the long run, Moriel concludes.

Student profile

Lois Moriel has a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from Fairleigh Dickison University. She has worked as a volunteer on various acquaculure, sea turtle and coral reef projects in Spain, Mexico and the US.

In 2007 she started the Ecosystems, Governance and Globalisation Masters programme at Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Her ambition is to eventually work with ecosystem  services and scenario planning.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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