Banning Shark Baiting
While Floridian beachgoers may wonder if the state will suffer the same rash of shark attacks it did last summer, scientists are still debating what prompted the bites. The attacks weren’t more frequent than usual, but conservation groups have pointed fingers at four small tour operators that offer educational, adrenaline-packed feeding dives. The companies bait sharks during the dives at popular underwater feeding grounds while stunned clients watch. Because of the environmentalists’ efforts, Florida has outlawed feeding aquatic wildlife, and this ban has global implications.
“All wildlife managers throughout the US and the world agree that by feeding wildlife, you are increasing the risk that that wildlife will attack humans,” says Bob Dimond, president of the Marine Safety Group (MSG), one of the first environmental organizations to label shark diving unsafe. Dimond says feeding sharks makes them associate humans with food, and therefore makes them more likely to attack.
But additionally, MSG contends that shark feeding is bad for sharks. “Feeding these animals causes highly unnatural aggregations,” says Bill Alevizon, the group’s biological consultant. He is concerned that altering shark behavior could affect migration or reproduction habits in unforeseeable ways.
However, many shark experts contend that the feeding dives aren’t bad for sharks, aren’t responsible for attacks, and educate the public about the animal’s ecological importance. Clive James, of the British conservation group Shark Trust, says shark-feeding operations have hosted thousands of bite-free dives, and Sam Gruber, a lemon shark expert at the University of Miami, has been feeding sharks for research purposes for 20 years without incident. Gruber also says that after decades of feeding, his sharks still behave normally and mate every summer.
What has struck a nerve with many scientists, says Gruber, is that the Florida ban “allows spear fishing and chumming in order to kill sharks, but not diving to learn about sharks and hopefully save them.” And James agrees: It’s “difficult to educate people about sharks if you cannot show them one.”
According to Bob Burhans, the Birch Aquarium curator at Scripps Oceanographic Institute, education is key to shark survival. “Humans are killing over 100 million sharks a year for the shark fins. We need to educate people that the shark populations can't handle this pressure.
”Because of the interplay between education, research, and economics, James advocates not starting new feeding operations, but not shutting down existing ones due to potential animal dependence and employment reasons. “Sadly and increasingly,” he laments, “the saying ‘better an ecotourist shark than a finned dead shark’ is a reality."