Bit­ing the Hand That Feeds

A bill in­tro­duced to the U. S. Se­nate brings the shark- feed­ing de­bate to the fore­front

Sport Diver - - Dive Briefs - BY JOR­DAN K. SNY­DER

Florida se­na­tors in­tro­duced a bill that would ban U.S. op­er­a­tors from bait­ing or feed­ing sharks for any rea­son other than har­vest­ing them.

The bill, named the Ac­cess for Sportfishing Act of 2016, had not been put to a vote at time of press, but it did get the ap­proval of the Se­nate’s Com­mit­tee on Com­merce, Sci­ence and Trans­porta­tion.

“This is ex­tremely dan­ger­ous be­cause the divers may or may not be in a cage and are at risk of at­tacks,” stated the com­mit­tee in its re­port. “Sharks also may learn to as­so­ci­ate divers with food since divers are feed­ing the sharks di­rectly from their hands.”

This de­bate is not new among divers. Many ar­gue that we should have no part in feed­ing ma­rine life, as it can change be­hav­ior and cre­ate a de­pen­dence on hu­mans. Re­search shows that sharks re­turn to a site more fre­quently and for longer pe­ri­ods of time once reg­u­lar feed­ing has been estab­lished, and that longterm bait­ing changes the va­ri­ety of species at sites.

But some con­ser­va­tion­ists cite pos­i­tives. Here’s one per­son’s view on re­spon­si­ble shark-bait­ing.

Surely, these se­na­tors were scarred by watch­ing Jaws — or other sen­sa­tional me­dia — at an early age. This bill not only fur­ther per­pet­u­ates the idea that sharks are mind­less killing ma­chines, but it also dam­ages the in­dus­try that has the most po­ten­tial for chang­ing that mind­set.

Ryan Wal­ton, owner of Deep Ob­ses­sion Char­ters in South Florida, is one of many shark-dive op­er­a­tors who will be af­fected by this pro­posed fed­eral ban on shark feed­ing. He has never ex­pe­ri­enced any in­ci­dents with sharks, nor have any of his col­leagues; it is hard to imag­ine why such a bill was even pro­posed.

Chum­ming has be­come nec­es­sary to re­li­ably view sharks in most places be­cause their pop­u­la­tions are ex­tremely de­pleted, but there’s no rea­son to fear an un­pro­voked at­tack. Shark be­hav­ior­ist Dr. Erich Rit­ter says there’s no data show­ing that feed­ing sharks con­di­tions them to as­so­ci­ate peo­ple with food.

“We’ve shown that, per weight, the shark is the most harm­less preda­tor on this planet,” says Rit­ter. Sharks are ex­tremely shy, and it takes a lot for them to de­cide to bite.

“The ar­gu­ment that if we don’t feed sharks we’ll have fewer bites doesn’t hold wa­ter,” says Rit­ter. “We’ve ob­served that in 2001 in Florida [when baited shark dives were banned in state waters], and the num­ber of bites didn’t go down.”

Rit­ter found that South Carolina, a state that has nonchum­ming shark dives, has ar­eas with a higher rel­a­tive risk fac­tor of shark in­ci­dents than Florida. Con­versely, the Ba­hamas, a coun­try 48 miles off the east coast of Florida with a huge shark-feed­ing dive in­dus­try, has had 74 un­pro­voked shark bites since 1860 — that is on av­er­age less than one shark in­ci­dent every two years. Con­sid­er­ing these three lo­ca­tions, one might sus­pect an­other fac­tor is to blame rather than shark feed­ing. Rick Macpher­son, ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist and founder of Sus­tain­able Shark Div­ing, be­lieves the bill is overkill be­cause it closes down the op­tion and op­por­tu­nity for sus­tain­able prac­tices.

Ul­ti­mately, money is a key fac­tor in this dis­cus­sion. In Palau,

it was found that an in­di­vid­ual shark had an es­ti­mated an­nual value of $179,000 from fish­ing, while that same shark would have a life­time value of $1.9 mil­lion to the dive in­dus­try.

“An eval­u­a­tion re­leased early this year shows that shark dives con­trib­ute $114 mil­lion to the Ba­hamian econ­omy,” says Macpher­son. This is an in­dus­try so lu­cra­tive that in 2011, the Ba­hamas banned the killing and pos­ses­sion of sharks.

Shark-en­counter dives in Florida ac­counted for about $221 mil­lion in di­rect ex­pen­di­tures in 2016, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the non­profit Oceana — that’s more than 200 times the value of shark-fin ex­ports for the en­tire United States in 2015. World­wide, if peo­ple find they can make more money div­ing with sharks than killing them, we can make ma­jor strides for con­ser­va­tion.

“[Hu­mans] are killing two times the amount of sharks than they can re­pop­u­late, so shark-dive tourism gives them an edge to help change the public per­cep­tion of sharks as mon­sters to just an­other charis­matic wildlife,” says Macpher­son.

As a dive op­er­a­tor, the most ful­fill­ing part of Wal­ton’s job is see­ing the changes in at­ti­tude when divers get out of the wa­ter, know­ing that there are new am­bas­sadors for sharks.

Be­ing in the wa­ter with these re­gal an­i­mals and ob­serv­ing the lit­tle in­ter­est they have in you is mind-blow­ing be­cause it dif­fers from ev­ery­thing you ex­pect. Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of other coun­tries, U. S. leg­is­la­tors should em­brace these encounters and reg­u­late them with sci­en­tif­i­cally sup­ported reg­u­la­tions, not bi­ased fears.

U. S. leg­is­la­tors should em­brace these encounters and reg­u­late them with sci­en­tif­i­cally sup­ported reg­u­la­tions, not bi­ased fears.

A blue shark swims in close to in­ves­ti­gate buck­ets of bait placed off the coast of Cal­i­for­nia.

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