The current threat of overfishing is arguably the largest crisis that sharks and rays are facing since their 420 million year history.
In addition, the negative connotation of sharks has until recently acted as a barrier to conservation efforts.
Wildlife tourism can help to increase public awareness and contribute to pro-conservation attitudes. However, shark feedings have been alleged to result in an increased risk of shark attacks due to sharks associating humans with food. The lack of understanding of the learning and associative mechanisms in sharks hinders our ability to assess the risks of feeding operations and the likelihood for sharks to associate humans with food.
Dennis Heinrich is a PhD student from Flinders University, Adelaide working in collaboration with the lab group of Associate Professor Culum Brown from Macquarie University. The aim of the PhD is to advance our understanding of the cognitive abilities of sharks and how these may affect their ecology and behaviour when subjected to wildlife tourism operations. Providing options for a sustainable shark tourism industry could be crucial for the conservation of these ancient marine predators.
The aim of this research, most recently undertaken in the Ian Potter Aquarium at SIMS, is to assess how reliable the use of smell is, as a non-rewarded attracting stimulus, and whether it could be used as an alternative to the feeding of sharks. This could potentially reduce the risk of sharks associating humans with the presence of food. To assess the usefulness of smell as an attractant for shark tourism operators Dennis is investigating how quickly sharks become habituated to the presence of food smell when the sharks are not rewarded.
Dennis explains “I am further testing sharks that are being fed every time they are exposed to the smell and sharks that are only sometimes being rewarded. The results could inform wildlife tourism operators on the usefulness of smell as an alternative to current feeding practices.”