Dept. Of Unintended Consequences: Messing With Stingrays

Most people view encounters in the wild as a benign way for humans to see interesting species outside of zoos and aquariums. I think that is generally true when encounters in the wild occur by chance. Spend time in the wild, and you will see interesting things. You don’t know what, you just know the wild will show you what it wants to show you.

But whenever wild encounters get turned into a profit-making business, there is the chance that humans–even with the best of intentions–will have a negative impact on the species they are out there to admire. It’s a constant tension in the whale watching business, and as Juliet Eilperin reports, it’s a definite problem in the stingray business:

Being fed by tourists has transformed the behavior of a group of Southern stingrays in the Caribbean over the past three decades, according to a study in the journal PLOS One.

Female rays fed packaged squid by vacationers at Grand Cayman Island’s Stingray City sandbar have switched from being nocturnal to being active during the day, and they now confine their activities to the feeding site.

“Ecotourism-provided food is drastically changing the behavior of these stingrays, including shifting their activity rhythms from night to day and causing overcrowding,” said one of the paper’s authors, Mahmood Shivji, who is director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University in Dania Beach, Fla.

What happens to the stingrays if the tour operators close up shop suddenly? Can they adapt back to their old ways? What other impacts, in terms of predation, vulnerability, socialization, and breeding, does daytime feeding have? We don’t know.

This illustrates an important point: we don’t have a “right” to indulge our curiosity to see wild species. Turning wild animals into entertainment and diversion for our pleasure (and for someone’s profit), is not that different than what happens at a marine park or at a circus. It just happens to take place in a natural setting.

Instead we have a duty to make sure that whatever we do in the wild, we try to leave no impact and no trace. Thats how you try to live in balance with nature, and it is certainly possible for whale watching and other wildlife encounter operations to find that balance. But wild animals are not there for your entertainment. Our primary role is to respect, conserve, and nurture the natural world. Whatever pleasure or wonder you get from being in nature or seeing nature should occur without extreme artifice or distortion, and within the constraints of those values.

If that means you can’t see (or feed, or swim with) some animal you want to get close to, well, too bad.