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Sharks, tourists battle for space around Thai destination island

Sharks, tourists battle for space around Thai destination island

on any given day Thai Up to 40 blacktip reef sharks swim in the teal shallows in Maya Bay, while some 4,000 tourists visit the white sands, flanked by towering cliffs.

Shark numbers have improved as nearly every shark has been driven out of the bay by an influx of tourist boats, while tourists are keen to catch a glimpse of Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 thriller The uninhabited countryside made famous by the film The Beach.

sharks in travel bans and COVID-19 Pandemic Between 2018 and 2022, all visitors to the bay cease.

A newborn blacktip reef shark is silhouetted as it swims past the Maya Shark Watch Project’s baited remote underwater video station at night in Maya Bay, Phi Phi Island National Park, Krabi Province, Thailand. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

Authorities have allowed limited tourism to resume in 2022, and now conservationists say shark numbers are dwindling again, making it difficult for Maya Bay to strike a balance between protecting pristine ecosystems and maintaining tourism-dependent livelihoods.

“We’re not talking about closing everything or reducing tourist numbers, but I think we’re talking about managing it wisely,” said Petch Manopawitr, a marine adviser for the National Parks Authority of Thailand.

Shark Nursery

Maya Bay is located on Phi Phi Leh Island, a limestone rock covered in emerald green vegetation andaman sea off the west coast of Thailand.

Marine researcher Metavee Chuangcharoendee said the island has once again become a nursery for young sharks due to the halt in tourism.

She and other researchers in the Maya Shark Watch Project use underwater cameras and drones to count sharks and observe their behavior, feeding areas and breeding patterns.

Starting a pilot study in November 2021 until the end of 2022, they noted shark As tourists gradually return.

Blacktips, named for their distinctive black coloring on their dorsal fin and tail, roam the Andaman Sea and other tropical regions in dwindling numbers due to overfishing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The sun rises over the limestone mountains of Maya Bay in Phi Phi Don National Park on Phi Phi Island, Krabi Province, Thailand. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

Many factors can affect sharks around Phi Phi Island, including seasonal activity patterns and human activities such as fishingMettawi said.

But with shark numbers already dwindling, authorities and conservationists plan to discourage tourists from swimming in the bay and drive away the baby sharks, which hide in shallows and coral reefs from cannibalistic adults.

“We hope that by imposing restrictions, we can lessen the disturbance to (sharks). We’re doing this research and hopefully we can find the best way to manage it and the best way for tourism to coexist with the environment,” Metavee said.

tourism income

Tourism is the main driver of Thailand’s economy, accounting for 12% of GDP before the pandemic. The Southeast Asian country hopes to generate 1.5 trillion baht in revenue this year from as many as 30 million tourists.

For Phi Phi National Park, annual revenue almost halved, from 638.3 million baht ($18.7 million) in 2018 to 373.6 million baht in 2019 after authorities closed beaches.

The pandemic has further weakened the struggling industry.

Under pressure from travel agencies, the authorities reopened Maya Bay in January 2022 after a four-year closure, and visitor and revenue figures are steadily rising again.

A newborn blacktip reef shark, listed as Vulnerable, swims at night in Maya Bay, Phi Phi National Park, Krabi Province, Thailand. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

But authorities have been restricting access.

Cruise ships must dock on the other side of the island beach; visitors must walk to the beach; the number of visitors allowed per hour is capped at 375, and they can only wade knee-deep in the water.

“If you can create a new image of Maya Bay as a nature preserve … I think that will actually create a new tourism program as well, and we (will) benefit as a whole,” said Petch, a consultant with the National Park Service.

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First published on: 29-03-2023 at 15:50 IST

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