When ecotourism kills

Watching whales, bears, and turtles can harm them, sometimes fatally.

Three years ago, a humpback whale surfaced under the keel of a ship off the coast of Massachusetts, gashing its dorsal fin.

That whale was fortunate compared with the minke whale struck and killed near Barnstable, Mass., in 1998. Both accidents were caused by whale-watching ships loaded with people eager to see the behemoths.

From watching whales in New England to tracking polar bears on the tundra to swimming with dolphins in the Pacific, well-meaning tourists are putting increasing pressure on animals worldwide, new studies show. The problem isn't limited to hordes of people degrading the environment. In some cases, ecotourism unwittingly appears to be killing the wildlife it seeks to protect.

"You can find more than a few instances in which people are just loving these animals to death," says Martha Honey, executive director of The International Ecotourism Society in Washington. (TIES). "Ecotourism is growing fastest in developing countries with the weakest regulations but some of the most stunning environments. We need stronger standards."

That doesn't mean that all - or even most - ecotourism is bad. So far, it has done more good than harm, many experts agree. But there are growing signs that some outfits can easily morph into something that is more about profit margins than penguins. That's when the trouble often begins.

In 2002, local activists in Gabon were patrolling a remote beach to protect sea turtles laying their eggs in the middle of the night. That night several groups of tourists came roaring onto the beach in all-terrain- vehicles to view the scene.

"They were running over the nests and then rushing on foot right up to these turtles," recalls Erin Heskett, with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). "These were [nature visitors brought in by] foreign companies and investors that had come in and set up shop. It was completely irresponsible. They didn't care about the animals."

With more than 60 "green certification" programs worldwide, the World Tourism Organization and the International Ecotourism Society this February announced a new program to harmonize standards.

Such tourism generates so much cash - money badly needed by preservation groups - that even good companies face a dilemma.

"It's a very difficult balance to try to help a community maintain its cultural integrity without destroying the goose that laid the golden egg," says Carole Carlson, senior science adviser at the IFAW, which promotes ecotourism worldwide as a mechanism for preserving wild species.

Together, nature tourism (primarily profit-driven) and ecotourism (geared specifically to helping nature) make up about 20 percent of international tourist travel and is growing 10 to 30 percent a year, much faster than other travel, TIES reports. The direct economic impact of nature travel, including ecotourism, runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars, the World Trade Organization estimates.

Despite such growth, ecotourism has worked well in many cases. Each year, for instance, the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Chile, receive tens of thousands of human visitors yet have managed to preserve animals and habitat with little damage. And tourism dollars pay to maintain good conditions, experts note.

Indirectly, money may also help marine tourism, one of the fastest-growing forms of ecotourism. A 2001 study found that whale-watching took place in 87 countries, generating $1 billion in revenue. Even whaling nations such as Iceland are getting into the whale-watching act, Ms. Carlson says, which offers whale hunters an alternative that could earn them more money.

When watching can kill

But if the US is any example, human visits to whales can also be a serious threat. Nineteen of 292 reported whale-ship strikes between 1975 and 2002 involved whale-watching vessels, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The vessels have struck more whales than any other craft except for Navy ships and cargo freighters over nearly three decades, the federal government reported earlier this year.

In addition, many other whale strikes by commercial ships go unreported, so it's impossible to know how much responsibility whale-watchers actually bear.

Some operators try to maximize revenue by taking as many people as possible to whale groups. That means zooming in at maximum speed and departing the same way. To correct such problems, Carlson and others at the IFAW are trying to get the National Marine Fisheries Service to draw up regulations.

In Puget Sound, meanwhile, and among the island waterways of the Salish Sea extending north into Canada along the Pacific Coast, whale-watching has expanded from less than 10 operators a decade ago to about 40 today. Most of the focus is on three pods of fewer than 90 orcas. Because the orcas are faster and more nimble than many other whales, collisions are not a problem, industry officials say.

"There are some extremists who say there should be no whale-watching at all," says Michael Bennett, president of Whale Watch Operators Northwest. But "we're proud of what we do." The industry organization of about 30 US and Canadian whale-watch operators has set up "best practices" guidelines, including reducing speeds to limit underwater sound pollution that might interfere with orca feeding.

For other species, ecotourism can pose a more subtle threat. For example, researchers report that meerkats and mongoose have caught tourist-borne diseases in Africa.

Subtle disturbance

On the south shore of Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba, entrepreneurs in the 1980s built school-bus-size vehicles on top of monster-truck tires to take people to view 12-foot-tall polar bears. Some 20,000 tourists and scientists each fall safely gawk at scores of bears during a six-week period beginning in mid-October.

The problem: The bears go "on alert" every time a tundra vehicle goes by, according to Markus Dyke, a researcher from the University of Manitoba. Because the bears are living off fat reserves, they should be sleeping or resting. Using their limited reserves to go on alert diminishes the fat they will carry into the winter - fat that they need for more important activities such as hunting or defending themselves.

Studies also show bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands area of northeastern New Zealand are getting less rest because of tourists, who arrive in droves by the boat to try to swim with them. So in September, New Zealand announced new restrictions that limit dolphin visits to certain areas and times of day.

Researchers say such steps will avoid killing the golden goose.

"The welfare of the dolphins is the most important factor," Rochelle Constantine, a University of Auckland researcher, said in a statement.

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