Conservation Photography, News, Sharks, Travel

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you: to feed sharks or not?

Great hammerheads, Bahmas

Great hammerheads, Bahamas

I love shark diving. I love observing sharks, taking pictures and making videos of sharks. And I have done so for many years. Sometimes for research and conservation, sometimes on private trips.

In many of those cases, the sharks were attracted with bait. One of the first baited shark dives I made was on Walkers Cay during the famous shark rodeo. A frozen bait ‘popsicle’ was attached to the sea floor before the divers entered the water, and we peacefully sat around it, watching 200+ sharks. Since then, I have snorkeled with great whites and dived with great hammerheads, bull sharks and tiger sharks – on baited dives.

But should we feed sharks – or not?

This topic has been controversial for several years. Some say it changes the biological behavior of sharks and it’s harmful to the marine ecosystem. Others say sharks tend to attack humans during this activity or relate the sight of divers to food.

This is also a case of anthropomorphism: the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. If I were a shark – I would… etc. etc. But sharks are not humans. They can get used to certain bahaviour and procedures, but do they alter their ‘normal’ behaviour  (migration, breeding, feeding etc.) because they are fed on certain locations? Different species have different responses. I wil therefore focus on the research done on tiger sharks, as it was a tiger shark video that I got the most comments on when posted on Facebook. Dr. Neil Hammerschlag tagged two control groups, sharks around Florida where feeding and chumming is illegal and with the sharks in and around Tiger Beach, Bahamas, where tiger sharks are frequently fed. He used acoustic telemetry tags. His findings were surprising to say the least. Tiger Beach sharks behavior matches nearly exactly to the control group of sharks in Florida. The bottom line is, feeding did not in anyway change the sharks migration, hunting or behavior in anyway.

Bull shark, Fiji

Similar results were obtained in Fiji, where bull sharks are fed several times a week. The sharks know where the ‘feeding site’ is, are attracted by boats, but their behavior, registered over 24 hours, is still normal.

In smaller blacktip reef sharks (that appear to reside close to their home reef) and ween adjacent reefs.and lemon sharks in French Polynesia, different behaviour and site fidelity was observed by Dr. Johann Mourier. But another factor is the socio-economic value of sharks: how much income and shark awareness is raised? On Moorea, it was calculated that direct profits generated by shark diving provided a yearly revenue of USD 5.4 million and that one lemon shark contributed USD 2.3 million over its 20-year lifespan. By basing the study on separately identified individuals, it was possible to calculate individual yearly contributions that averaged USD 315,000 for each of the 13 resident sharks, which accounted for 73% of onsite observations. The most productive resident female alone contributed USD 475,000 (Clua et al. 2011).

Overall:  behavioural impacts of ecotourism provisioning on sharks are likely scale, site and species specific, as Dr. Hammerschlag states.

I am convinced that you ALWAYS have to keep in mind, that a shark is a predator. For me, handfeeding is a definite NO. Touching and manipulating sharks is a NO as well for me. Observing sharks when there is bait in the water, deposited there before the divers arrive – no problem for me. Attracting a shark with  a small quantity of fish (chumming) is okay, feeding massive loads of fish that replace natural prey is not. I therefore chose and choose to work with certain operations only, that act in a responsible way and respect wildlife.

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