From sea monsters to charismatic megafauna: Changes in perception and use of large marine animals
Marine megafauna has always elicited contrasting feelings. In the past, large marine animals were often depicted as fantastic mythological creatures and dangerous monsters, while also arousing human curiosity. Marine megafauna has been a valuable resource to exploit, leading to the collapse of populations and local extinctions. In addition, some species have been perceived as competitors of fishers for marine resources and were often actively culled. Since the 1970s, there has been a change in the perception and use of megafauna. The growth of marine tourism, increasingly oriented towards the observation of wildlife, has driven a shift from extractive to non-extractive use, supporting the conservation of at least some species of marine megafauna. In this paper, we review and compare the changes in the perception and use of three megafaunal groups, cetaceans, elasmobranchs and groupers, with a special focus on European cultures. We highlight the main drivers and the timing of these changes, compare different taxonomic groups and species, and highlight the implications for management and conservation. One of the main drivers of the shift in perception, shared by all the three groups of megafauna, has been a general increase in curiosity towards wildlife, stimulated inter alia by documentaries (from the early 1970s onwards), and also promoted by easy access to scuba diving. At the same time, environmental campaigns have been developed to raise public awareness regarding marine wildlife, especially cetaceans, a process greatly facilitated by the rise of Internet and the World Wide Web. Currently, all the three groups (cetaceans, elasmobranchs and groupers) may represent valuable resources for ecotourism. Strikingly, the economic value of live specimens may exceed their value for human consumption. A further change in perception involving all the three groups is related to a growing understanding and appreciation of their key ecological role. The shift from extractive to non-extractive use has the potential for promoting species conservation and local economic growth. However, the change in use may not benefit the original stakeholders (e.g. fishers or whalers) and there may therefore be a case for providing compensation for disadvantaged stakeholders. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that even non-extractive use may have a negative impact on marine megafauna, therefore regulations are needed.