Youtube shark video expert Carlos Gauna – aka ‘TheMalibuArtist‘ – has produced a detailed video explaining why the closure of Isla Guadalupe to tourism may have disastrous repercussions for the population of great white sharks for which it is famous.
Following a six month-closure in 2022 to investigate the potential damaging effects of cage-diving tourism to the area, the Mexican government announced in January that Isla Guadalupe would remain permanently off-limits. The news has been received with great dismay by local tour operators, not only out of concern for their loss of business but also for the future of Guadalupe’s vitally important shark population.
The official press release from La Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (The National Commission of Natural Protected Areas Mexico, CONANP) claims that ‘the prohibition of the observation of the white shark for recreational purposes eliminates the bad practices that put this species at risk due to the use of attractants and observation cages. Likewise, with the refusal to sport fishing, the populations of marine species that inhabit the area are protected by eliminating ghost nets.’
Carlos argues that while there has, indeed, been a small number of incidents during cage diving activities in which sharks were harmed, these must be taken into context in terms of the overall benefit that tourism brings to the region in terms of shark awareness and conservation.
‘Since 2001, there have been an estimated 300,000 cage dives by the operators combined,’ he says. ‘Out of that, there has been only a handful of injuries and fatalities to sharks themselves. The number of serious incidents that resulted in major shark injuries and deaths is, at last count, six.
‘And each time,’ he adds, ‘like in any other industry, lessons were learned, new regulations introduced, and more oversight was implemented.’
One particular misconception of the cage diving activities at Guadalupe is the use of chum to attract sharks. Chumming is illegal at Isla Guadalupe – the operators use a frozen tuna head to ‘encourage shark movement’ – and is largely unnecessary, as the sharks gather around the island to feed on its large population of seals.
Another misconception is based around the dramatic videos of distressed sharks finding their way inside the cages; little more than the viral distribution of a handful of extremely rare ocurrences.
While cage-diving operators clearly have a vested interest in keeping Isla Guadalupe open to tourists, it must be remembered that the financial implications spread far wider than the well-known companies found in travel brochures and international dive shows. Many of the local boat crews were fishermen before they were recruited by the tour operators, and so now to fishing they will return.
Furthermore, there is a chance that a return to fishing may have a devastating impact to the local shark population, because, buried deep in the CONANP report, is an exemption for commercial fishing operated under the auspices of the Abuloneros y Langosteros (Abalone and Lobster) Cooperative.
Clearly, the fishing of shellfish and crustaceans pose little threat to the great white population, but, according to the Washington, DC think tank, Brookings Institution, small lobster fishing vessels may serve as cover for illegal fishing activitites.
In its report, ‘China-linked wildlife poaching and trafficking in Mexico‘, the Brookings Institution reveals that Mexican drug cartels have hijacked the fishing trade, seizing control of legal operations to distribute illegal drugs, control the supply of marine produce to Mexican restaurants and, increasingly, smuggle high-value poached wildlife – including shark fins – to the black market.
Although Carlos is keen to stress that there is no evidence that this is happening at Guadalupe yet, it is a distinct possibility that it will, if public oversight is not maintained around the island.
‘What better place to run an illegal fishing operation than a deserted island 150 miles offshore that coincidentally is the home to the largest fins on the planet,’ Carlos agues? ‘It is no secret that shark finning is a billion-dollar underground industry, [and we] are talking about the largest [white] sharks on the planet. Sharks that are 25-50 years old, with fins that will be very enticing to those in the illegal finning industry.’
Carlos also points out that it is not just sharks that frequent the waters around Isla Guadalupe, with whales and dolphins, also attracting visitors to the island. Illegal fishing activities can pose threats to a wide variety of species, but it is the sharks that are most vulnerable for their high-value fins, and Carlos is encouraging people to make their voices heard.
‘Right now, the biggest thing anybody can do is raise awareness and put pressure on the Mexican government,’ he says. ‘Whether it’s social media, public outcry, or simply educating the public about the situation, the more people that understand and know what’s happening here, the better.
‘The balance of the ecosystem, not just at Guadalupe Island but worldwide, depends on these apex predators of the sea. As I’ve always said, for some people sharks are scary, but for all people, nothing is more scary than an ocean devoid of sharks.’
You can find more from Carlos on TheMalibuArtist YouTube channel and on Instagram @TheMalibuArtist
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