Whale watching may not be so eco-friendly

Whale and dolphin watching may not be the low-impact, sustainable industries many believe them to be, international experts say.

University of Otago's tourism expert Professor James Higham said whale watching had been widely portrayed as a sustainable alternative to whale hunting since the early 1980s.

However, the assumption that whale watching was sustainable obscured the potential for unsustainable whale-watching practices.

When considering the relationships between humans and cetaceans, terms such as "exploitative" and "consumptive" must be used advisedly, he said.

"The transition from physical extraction [hunting] to the selling of 'services' [tourist experiences] should acknowledge that both may be exploitative and consumptive in different ways and to varying degrees."

This latest research explored complex issues associated with the sustainable management of whale watching. They included the growth in demand for tourist interactions with cetaceans in the wild, and the challenge of effective policy, planning and management.

"Whale watching has developed very quickly around the world," Higham said.

"[It] has been strongly advocated by non-governmental organisations, governments and tourism development agencies, which highlight the assumed sustainability of 'non-consumptive' enterprises."

"The rationale is very appealing. If you don't hunt and kill whales or dolphins, but shoot them with cameras rather than harpoons, then it may intuitively be considered non-consumptive.

"But, as the industry has grown, animal populations have come under more and more pressure and the 'non-consumptive' nature of whale watching has been drawn into question."

With Associate Professor Lars Bejder, of Australia's Murdoch University cetacean research unit; and Rob Williams, a Canadian marine conservation biologist, the experts have compiled their findings and possible solutions in a book titled Whale-watching: Sustainable Tourism and Ecological Management. It will be released this month.

Bejder said he had carried out research in Shark Bay, Western Australia, a popular site for people to view bottlenose dolphins.

The research demonstrated that, as the level of interaction increased, so too did the effect on the animals' biology, habitat use and numbers.

"Whales and dolphins frequent certain ecological regions because they are good places to feed, or rest, or raise young," Bejder said.

"Take the spinner dolphins of Hawai'i. They feed at night in offshore waters and go into shallow, protected bays to rest and socialise during the day - but that's where and when tourists gather to watch them, potentially disturbing their critical daily resting period."

The book, while looking at impacts, was also solutions-focused and took into account different regional and national contexts, employing insights from relatively successful models such as Shark Bay and Kaikoura, Higham said.