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Despite rapid growth in the marine tourism sector, the impacts of recreation on the marine environment are generally not well understood. Most existing studies of marine recreation ecology have focused on behavioural changes resulting from direct interactions between humans and wildlife including provisioning. However, non-consumptive, non-provisioning human impacts may also result in persistent behavioural impacts to shark populations. In this study, we examined differences in residency, abundance, and behaviour of reef sharks at Palmyra Atoll in response to long-term SCUBA diving activity, using a combination of survey techniques including baited remote underwater video systems and multi-year passive acoustic monitoring. In most locations with recreational diving operations, some level of human impact is pervasive, but on Palmyra, extractive fishing is prohibited, and scientific diving activities are concentrated on just a few sites that house long-term monitoring projects. These sites experience relatively intensive diving, while the majority of the island is entirely undived. Evidence from elsewhere has shown that sharks behaviourally respond to people in the water over short time scales, but our results indicate that this response may not persist. We did not detect differences in reef shark abundance or behaviour between heavily dived and undived locations, nor were there differences in shark residency patterns at dived and undived sites in a year with substantial diving activity and a year without any diving. Our results suggest that humans can interact with reef sharks without persistent behavioural impacts, and that well-regulated shark diving tourism can be accomplished without undermining conservation goals.
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Bradley D, Papastamatiou YP, Caselle JE (2017) No persistent behavioural effects of SCUBA diving on reef sharks. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 567:173-184. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12053
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