New Paper Published on the Impacts of Whale Watching in Panama

Lab students Arielle Amrein and Katie Surrey on a boat in Panama

Lab students Arielle Amrein and Katie Surrey on a boat in Panama. Photo credit: Dr. Leah Gerber

Two Conservation Innovation students (Arielle Amrein, MS and Katie Surrey) co-authored a paper that was recently published in Frontiers in Marine Science, presenting the results of their pilot study that was conducted last summer in Las Perlas archipelago, Panama. The study was a result of the ASU collaboration with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and the research team and co-authors included Dr. Leah Gerber (Center for Biodiversity Outcomes), Dr. Hector Guzman (STRI) and Dr. Susana Cardenas (USFQ). The project assessed how local whale watching activities were affecting the behavior of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) population. 

Whale watching is a popular ecotourism activity around the world and is a significant source of income for local communities, and provides financial and educational support for conservation efforts.  However, as the sustainability of whale-based ecotourism depends on the behavior and health of whale populations, it is crucial that ecotourism industries consider the impact of their activities on whales. Previous research has determined that animals experience stress due to high frequency and proximity of human activity, and although Panama implemented regulations in 2007 that prohibits whale-based tourism from disturbing whales, (which is explicitly measured by changes in whale behavior), there is no systematic monitoring of whale watching activity to enforce the regulations, and as a result there is currently little compliance from tour operators and tourists. The unmonitored activities of these boats often bring them in close range of the whales who are usually breeding mothers with calves, which may have long-term effects on the overall survival of the individuals and thereby threaten the conservation of the species.

To address this hypothesis, the team collected behavioral data (e.g., change in swimming direction, frequency of breaching, slap behaviors, diving, and spy hops) from humpback whales in the marine protected area of Las Perlas Archipelago off the Pacific coast of Panama. They conducted this study during the humpback whale breeding season from August through September 2019. Based on these behavioral observations, they found that higher boat density corresponded with humpback whales’ frequency of direction changes, which supports previous findings regarding the impacts of disturbance. This on-going project simultaneously pushes the frontier of animal behavior and ecological-economics, integrating these fields to improve conservation decision-making and developing models that balance trade-offs between behavior, stress, anthropogenic impacts, benefits from ecosystem use, and costs of conservation strategies. Given the long lifespan of whales and their complex behavioral responses to humans, this approach was novel because it will help demonstrate how explicitly considering animal behavior potentially influences the success of tourism, and how the behavior of an iconic marine species affects the ecosystem services provided to people. Understanding these interconnections between human and whale behavior is pertinent to whale conservation and sustainable tourism development, and it is the hope that future integration of animal behavior research into management planning will result in more effective regulation and compliance of conservation policies.

This project would not have been possible without the invaluable contributions from every member of the research team, as well as financial and logistical support from the STRI-ASU Collaborative Initiative.