Using Fatty-Acid Profile Analysis as an Ecologic Indicator in the Management of Tourist Impacts on Marine Wildlife: A Case of Stingray-Feeding in the Caribbean

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Environmental Management





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Feeding marine wildlife as a tourism experience has become a popular means by which to attract both people and wildlife, although management efforts are still in their infancy. “Stingray City Sandbar” in the Cayman Islands, where visitors can hand feed free-ranging Southern Stingrays (Dasyatis americana), is a world-famous attraction currently undergoing visitor and wildlife management. One plan is to decrease the amount of nonnatural food provided by tourists with the intention of decreasing stingray habituation to the artificial food source and promoting stingray health. However, the effectiveness of this action is uncertain given that neither the extent of squid composition in the stingray diet nor the degree of nutrient similarity between the fed and natural diets is unknown. We used fatty acid (FA) profile analysis to address these questions by assessing the serum nonesterified FA composition of fed and unfed stingrays around the island and compared them with FA profiles of (1) the provisioned food source (squid) and (2) other warm- and cold-water elasmobranchs (sharks and rays). Our results indicated that fed stingrays were distinct. The FA profiles of the fed stingray population were expressly different from those of the unfed populations and showed a remarkable similarity to the FA composition of squid, suggesting that squid is the main food source. The tropical fed stingrays also exhibited essential FA ratios, specific to both species and habitat, comparable with those of elasmobranchs and squid from cold-water environs, implying that the provisioned food does not provide a similar nutritional lipid composition to that eaten in the wild. Our results suggest that FA profiles are a valuable indicator for the management and monitoring of fed Southern Stingrays because they can be used to assess differences in diet composition and provide an index of nutritional similarity. Our findings are currently being used by Caymanian stakeholders in designing practical management actions for their wildlife attraction.