A hard-hitting study shows the commonplace practice of sprinkling bread in the water to woo reef fish may or may not keep tourists happy – but it is certainly harmful to smaller herbivorous fishes.
Aitutaki marine scientist Richard Story and Pacific Divers boss Stephen Lyon are co-authors of the academic study, led by Waikato University’s Natalie Prinz.
They dived on four reefs in Aitutaki lagoon, to investigate the impact of sprinkling bread in the water to lure fish. The study finds it is changing fish behaviour, and not in a good way.
After crumbling a loaf of bread in the water, they found there were more fish overall, but from fewer species. Only a quarter of the fishes—mostly carnivorous and omnivorous species—actually ate the bread.
And it hurt smaller herbivorous fishes. The surge in activity caused “all this turmoil in their environment,” that scared them away, Prinz said. It created a “landscape of fear”.
The artificial feeding caused a sudden increase in numbers of predatory bigger fish, in a frenzy around the bread.
Stephen Lyon said yesterday: “Work like this demonstrates some of the non-lethal impacts of tourism on our marine environment.”
The research also covered social impact, he said, with interesting discoveries about the impression fish feeds leave on visitors and locals.
Aitutaki locals have been feeding the fish for the past 20 years, to sustain tourist satisfaction – but in fact, the research found that tourists appreciated snorkelling regardless of feeding.
This was good news: tour operators around the world can now safely stop feeding bread to the fish, knowing both the marine and the tourism environments are better off without it.
The survey recorded 5128 individual fish from 71 species.
The question of whether or not to feed was divisive. Overseas participants on snorkelling cruises declared that they would have enjoyed the activity with or without bread feeding, but local stakeholders highlighted the need for continued bread feeding practices in order to guarantee tourists’ satisfaction during snorkelling cruises.
The survey suggested that restriction needed to be implemented on bread feeding practises in Aitutaki and this may have some resistance from tour operators but would not harm tourism satisfaction.
“In light of these findings, this study suggests regulation of artificial feeding practices, supporting conservation measures to protect fish communities and functions in Aitutaki lagoon or elsewhere, being subject to local management priorities.”