- Conservation is an integral part of this discussion so be aware that conservation in the 21st century is not merely an environmental issue, more and more, conservation has become an issue of economics
- "Shark Feeding" as discussed here, is what I would classify as an operation which specialises in offering paying customers a chance to take part as spectators, in an organised dive based around a professional feeding sharks as part of a spectacle for said customers. These shark feeds will be a regularly repeated operation using the same protocols on each dive, those protocols being specific to each operation. Some good, some undoubtedly bad.
- The examples I use are examples about which I know and/or have experienced personally, please don't get upset if you have had a different experience on a feed not referenced here, that's not my fault.
- I have no agenda for or against anyone or anything referenced here, if you are referenced and you don't like what you read, please get in touch in the comments where you will be warmly welcomed to discuss further without fear of being called names or condescended to. I respect anyone who wants to be a part of an open discussion.
- My own experience comprises about 150-160 dives with sharks of various species in various locations, many have been baited dives, some have been the rigidly organised, beginner type dives (Stuart Coves Caribbean Reef Shark Feeds for example) and others have been more what can be called "proper shark diving" adventures from which I learnt more about sharks than I ever could as part of a larger group.
- I would say my main areas of interest and knowledge regarding sharks would be shark attack and shark behaviour, both of which make up a large part of the shark feeding debate so I would say I'm pretty well placed to discuss it but I am not a scientist and nor do I undertake any scientific research personally. I will defer to the expertise of others in this piece and the people to whom I defer will be those with the experience I don't have and those with that scientific base of research.
- The risk of shark attack to people on the dives but primarily, the risk posed to bathers, surfers and divers using areas in close proximity to feeding areas
- The ecological effects on sharks and natural shark behaviour
- The ethics of humans feeding wildlife
- The use of wildlife conditioning for the financial benefit of commercial dive operations.
- The conditioning of sharks to humans as a provider food
- Aggregating sharks in ares where they may become vulnerable to fishing fleets
Shark Feeding and Shark Attack
Shark feeding as a source of generating commercial income began on a wide scale in the mid-nineties and shark attacks have been happening ever since man first started using the ocean as a source of subsistence and recreation.
According to the International Shark Attack File there have been 2,569 "unprovoked" shark attacks worldwide between 1580 to 2012. I am using the ISAF as the source here for the only reason that it is currently the only extensive source of data for shark attacks available. In my opinion, the ISAF is not 100% accurate primarily for its classification of what constitutes "unprovoked." There are omissions from their records which I feel are not reflective of the true data, however, for the most part, it is a valid source of statistics for this particular discussion.
Shark feeding operations started to become truly widespread around the globe at the turn of the 21st century. According to a 2012 study by the University of British Columbia, there are seventy dedicated "Shark Watching Sites" in forty-five different countries, classified as locations where dedicated baited and non-baited shark encounters occur.
The results from this study show that an accurate estimate would suggest over 590,000 people, each year take part in a shark watching experience. Most of these will be as a diver or snorkeler thus meaning, over half a million people knowingly enter the water with sharks each year, around the world. Of course, not all these operations bait the dives. This study would confirm of what we have all been aware for some time, that more people than ever are encountering sharks in their natural environment and that number is also steadily increasing.
Between 2001 and 2012 there were 812 "unprovoked" attacks around the world, with Florida, Australia and Hawaii providing most of the victims. This league table reads as following:
4. South Africa
6. South Carolina
7. North Carolina
9. The Bahamas
As a caveat, I will add that Fiji had 11 attacks in that same time period.
During that period and in one of those locations, there was a fatality during a baited shark dive, when Markus Groh was bitten by a Bull Shark (although reports vary on the species responsible) during a feed in The Bahamas. It is not my place to give a definitive account of what actually happened that day as wasn't there and do not want to speculate, however, this remains the only occasion whereby a spectator on a shark feed has sustained serious (in this case fatal) injury.
The popular argument is less about the safety of participants on these dives and more about the risk to recreational water users in areas close to those used for shark feeding. Looking at the list above, we need to link those attacks to shark feeding to give this argument any credibility, or of course, provide proof of a lack of any connection:
Florida - Shark feeding is banned and there are currently no shark feeding dives operating within federal waters
Australia - Shark feeding operations are surprisingly sparse with those that do operate, primarily being the Great White cage dives in South Australia and the shark rodeo dives in the North East. Western Australia, particularly around the Perth area and South West which is currently experiencing an unusual spike in incidents, has no shark feed operations.
Hawaii - Shark feeding is banned. There are no longer shark feeds in operation here.
South Africa - A shark diving hot spot with several baited cage dive operations in the Cape Town area and baited open water dives off the Durban coast.
California, South Carolina, North Carolina and Brazil - There are no recognised, dedicated shark feeds in any of these areas.
The Bahamas - The shark feeding capital of the world where shark feeding is a major source of tourism.
Fiji - Fiji has two main shark feeds on the same area, a mile apart. None of the eleven attacks occurred in areas within close proximity to this area.
In this time period, shark attacks have remained at a consistent average yearly rate in California and both South and North Carolina. Brazil, the Bahamas and Florida are seeing a slight decline in attacks and South Africa, Australia and Hawaii are experiencing a minor increase although in Hawaii, the jump from three attacks to ten in the space of twelve months is unusual in itself but it is not unusual that locations with historical records of annual shark attacks see brief periods with statistical anomalies where attacks spike in excess of what would be considered "average."
The global trend shows a decrease in annual attacks in the first half of this period followed by an increase in the second half.
Where we need to look for proof that shark feeding increases the risk of attack is in the areas where shark feeding is widely practised, the three prime examples being South Africa, The Bahamas and Fiji. Where South Africa has seen a slight increase in attacks, primarily as a result of a spike in 2010 which would qualify as one of the aforementioned statistical anomalies, the increase is in no way reflective of an increase in perceived danger posed by shark feeding as these attacks did not occur in a proximity anywhere near close enough to locations used by shark feed operations. The Bahamas has actually seen a decrease in the attack rate and attacks in Fiji remain consistently rare.
There has now been well over a decade for the argument that shark feeding increases the risk of attack to be proven but the simple fact, that sharks will pose a greater threat to humans because of shark feeding, has widely been discredited, the stats just don't add up. By that argument, The Bahamas and Fiji should be the two most dangerous parts of the world to use the ocean, when in reality, of the global areas where shark attack can be conceivably argued as a "natural risk," both The Bahamas and Fiji, where large, potentially dangerous sharks are relatively plentiful, are statistically the two areas you are least likely to be attacked.
We must also balance out the argument by recognising that both Mexico and Cuba, where shark feeds are undertaken have experienced a slight increase in shark bites on swimmers in the last two years but this cannot be reliably linked to those feeds unless this continues at the same rate for the next few years which is extremely unlikely. Russia, Vietnam and Egypt have also seen spikes in shark bite but none of those countries have organised baited shark diving operations.
So, statistically speaking, you are less likely to be bitten by a shark in areas where shark feeds occur, a fact which on its own completely discredits the notion it poses an increased risk to ocean users. The rate of global shark attacks has not been affected by shark feeding, the stats are there for everyone to see.
In the simplest way of looking at it, there is absolutely no evidence or proof to claim that shark feeds increase the risk of attack, whereas there is statistical and anecdotal evidence which does in fact suggest the opposite.
Feeding sharks will weaken their natural predatory instincts
This argument is based on the assumption that if you feed sharks enough, they'll stop hunting in their natural way and that migratory sharks will instead, maintain an unnatural site fidelity.
In Fiji, Beqa Adventure Divers operates an active daily research data process on each shark feed, during which individual sharks are recorded as present on each dive. This is primarily in regards to the Bulls as the dominant species and is essentially, a register, like you had at school, to maintain and update a log of all the sharks that appear on the dive.
The feeds take place five days a week and up to one ton of food is introduced into the process every week. That's a lot of Tuna heads!
There are around 150 individual Bull Sharks which have been recorded on Shark Reef at this site since 2002. A small number of these individuals could be classified as "resident" in that they spend most of the year on or around Shark Reef but the majority are transient. Bull Sharks are by nature, wide roaming and the individuals which do not fall into the local population will visit the feed sporadically over the year, most return, others do not. The returning animals will stay, on average between 2-10 days (Mike, correction if required) and the data suggests that many of these individuals appear at roughly the same time, in cycles of around ten days, before disappearing again.
As part of my filming "Of Shark and Man" I tested whether the sharks would still aggregate on non-feed dives, carrying out a number of dives in the arena on Shark Reef on the "off days" during which only 6-10 individuals were present, never approaching closer than ten feet and in no way displaying any aggression.
During feeds where up to 100 individuals are present, only between 5-10 individuals actually feed, the others preferring to seemingly be part of what is something of a social gathering, observing the action in varying degrees of proximity. This feed uses Tuna Heads which have an extremely low calorific value, being that they are made up of mainly bone, ensuring the shark's natural hunger is in no way affected by their intake of between one and three heads per dive. Over the course of a week, different individuals will feed meaning a single shark may only take one head during an average ten day visit to the feeds. Most sharks will spend their time on the feeds without actually feeding before again disappearing.
This paper by Juerg Brunnschweiler dissects this particular area of research in detail and is well worth a read. This from the conclusions:
In conclusion, our results and the still few studies that looked at the behavioural response of sharks to food provisioning all indicate that residency patterns and site fidelity to long-term shark provisioning sites are species specific and that intraspecific variation exists. Furthermore, evidence is accumulating that chumming and food provisioning are unlikely to fundamentally change movement patterns at large spatial and temporal scales, and seem to only have a minor impact on the behaviour of large predatory sharks , , ; hence, the creation of behavioural effects at the ecosystem level seems unlikely . It is further worth noting that sharks that were both visually observed and tagged in this study were individuals that have a higher propensity for showing behavioural responses to provisioning. We found that C. leucas do not appear to be strongly conditioned to the provisioning tourism and also exhibited diver avoidance. However, the sharks monitored in this study are biased to being individuals ‘more likely’ or ‘more comfortable’ to be observed or tagged. Thus, it stands to reason that the overall impacts of provisioning tourism on the C. leucas population as a whole is even less.
Not all operators undertake this kind of rigorous data collection and research but if we look at many other feeds, the suggestion that sharks natural predatory instinct and migratory behaviour can be viewed as incorrect by the very fact that those operations exploit natural seasonal aggregations of target species. Bull Sharks in Playa Del Carmen appear on the feeds periodically between December and March, Great Hammerheads in the Bahamas between January and March, Great Whites in Guadelupe between August and November and so on. There are feeds which take place in the tropics, including in The Bahamas which centre around resident Reef Shark species which exhibit naturally high site fidelity meaning the behavioural effect on those animals in regards to migratory patterns is negligible to non-existent.
Barry Bruce and Russel Bradford undertook a study in the Neptune Islands, South Australia to investigate the effects of chumming for sharks by cage dive operators, it's a big one but again, from the conclusions;
"As seen in previous research, white sharks tagged during the study were found to be temporary residents of the Neptune Islands. Despite berleying, sharks continue to arrive and leave the Neptune Islands. As in previous years, the number of sharks present at any one time was highly variable.There were some periods when no sharks were present.These patterns are probably driven by differences in the ocean conditions between years and seasons.
Increased berleying has not led to sharks taking up patterns of permanent residency and sharks left the Neptunes Group for other destinations across their Australian range during the study period. For example, three tagged sharks were detected by acoustic receivers moving through south-western Western Australia after leaving the Neptune Islands during the course of the study."
Research and current data points heavily to sharks maintaining natural predatory and site fidelity behaviours in and around areas where shark feeds take place. There is no data that I am aware of which would suggest this is not the case so it would appear again, that this concern, whilst valid, is not applicable as a reason not to feed sharks in organised shark feeds.
Any shark dive should, in my opinion, impress upon all their clients the importance of "look don't touch" and instill at least a modicum of educational content in their briefings.
- Economic influx to often third world countries and the emergence of career opportunities
- The reliance on healthy shark populations
- The environmental benefit from healthy shark populations
- The creation of passionate new shark lovers
- The economic initiative to governments to protect sharks to maintain and develop tourism
- Ancillary financial benefit to other businesses in the community
Shark diving and Shark Feeds create economic growth in third world countries