Sharks are some of my favourite ocean creatures. It is always a thrill to see them on a dive. Shark feeding is definitely an issue which divides people. The most common reason to chum for sharks is to allow people to dive with them and experience something that otherwise would be impossible. Scientists researching shark behaviour also often bait sharks in order to measure them, take tissue samples and attach tags or tracking devices to see where they go.
So what are the arguments for and against shark feeding?
For sure it is an amazing experience to see these beautiful animals in the wild in spontaneous “lucky” encounters. However, shark numbers have declined from as much as 50% to 90% (depending on the species) over the past 15 years. In fact, there are studies that suggest some species of reef shark could become regionally extinct within the next 15 or 20 years. The likelihood of divers having a chance meeting has dramatically fallen. I can only dream of what our oceans were like 50 years ago when they were teeming with sharks!
Scuba diving and shark tourism are very profitable industries. Local communities can benefit greatly from the increased employment and cash injection. In places such as Beqa Lagoon in Fiji, dive operators pay local fishermen to leave the reefs untouched. Both fishing and diving communities benefit. Studies around the world repeatedly document the value of sharks to their economies. In 2013 worldwide shark tourism was estimated to be worth US$314 million and expected to grow to US$780 million within 20 years.
Years ago I thought shark feeding was a dangerous practice. That sharks were terrifying unpredictable man-eaters. As I have become more educated about sharks and learned to love them more and more, my opinion has slowly changed.
It is true that there are many misconceptions about sharks often due to ignorance and lack of education. By showing people first hand how beautiful these creatures really are, we can change perceptions. Sharks are essential to the health of the oceans and consequently to our own continuing survival as a species. Education and awareness are great tools for the protection of our fragile ocean environment.
By allowing people to experience shark encounters they otherwise never could, we increase the chance that they will want to protect them. Images of sharks posted on social media help people see that they are not monsters of the deep. Instead, they can learn to appreciate these sleek majestic and personable creatures.
“People protect what they love”
Jacques Yves Cousteau
Humans have explored only 5% of the oceans. Yet, more than 70% of the earth is covered by them and 97% of the earth’s water is contained within them. Our weather, climate, and ultimately life support systems of every creature on earth is determined by what happens in the deep blue. Oceans supply food upon which billions of people are dependent, and ultimately even the air we breathe.
Sharks as apex predators have an immense impact on the health of our marine environment. In Beqa Lagoon prior to shark feeding activity the reef was dead and lifeless. Now, although it is certainly not a pretty coral reef (there are divers kneeling on it every day for a start), it is a reef teeming with fish life. Sharks are not the only attendees. Snapper, trevally, damsel fish, sergeant majors, moral eels, large grouper and many other species are present on the reef. This is a healthy ecosystem.
It is important for scientists to study the feeding habits, migration, reproduction and many other aspects of the lifecycles of sharks in order to protect them. Chumming is one effective way of getting close enough to sharks to tag, take samples and observe them. Scientists in the Bahamas have been able to spend considerable time researching the behaviour of tiger sharks. In Fiji, a research team dives year round with bull sharks and several other species to observe and protect them.
One common argument against shark feeding is that we are interrupting their natural behaviour and creating dependencies. This could not only lead to higher numbers of sharks in feeding areas but also change their feeding patterns and consequently the way they interact with the environment. There is a fear that when sharks are fed regularly in the same place and the same way they may come to associate divers with food.
Alterations to feeding patterns, diet, and creation of dependencies will only occur if feeding becomes regular and frequent so that the normal diet of sharks is replaced. Many shark feeding operations are proponents of only feeding the sharks enough to give them a taste. If sharks are not fed until they are full the shark feed does not become the source of a complete meal. Consequently, sharks will not come to rely on it.
The shark feed in Beqa Lagoon does not occur every day, only two or three times per week. This prevents the shark feed from becoming habit forming. Research from weekly tissue samples sent to a lab in Australia shows that the tuna heads they are fed have not become a core component of their varied diet.
But people are afraid of sharks. For some, the perceived danger of diving with an apex predator is what makes it so exciting. There are certainly risks. Being in the water with sharks in a feeding frenzy (sharks are not good sharers) has intrinsic perils. Those who argue against shark feeding cite the precarious nature of creating an unnatural baited turmoil and then jumping into the middle of it. Put like that it certainly sounds crazy or at best illogical.
There have been a few incidents over time where divers have been attacked. In 2010 there was a spate of attacks by a single Oceanic Whitetip in the Red Sea which was directly associated with shark feeding practices. Four victims were injured with one fatality. It was attributed to the practice of a dive master who would keep bait in a pouch on his hip and tease the shark with it. The shark bit a number of people on the buttocks once the feeding activity was stopped. More recently in Costa Rica in 2017 a tourist was killed by a tiger shark and an instructor injured in the same incident.
While this is tragic, the numbers of attacks are statistically still very low. In 2017 there were a total of 30 provoked attacks worldwide.
“Provoked attacks” occur when a human initiates physical contact with a shark, e.g. a diver is bitten after grabbing a shark, attacks on spearfishers and those feeding sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net, etc.
On average there are 6 fatalities worldwide each year from all shark attacks. Only 2% of all attacks happen scuba diving.
Although it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk, with good management of shark feeding attractions it can be minimized. A good shark feed has strict rules in place to protect both divers and sharks. Divers are well briefed before entering the water about what to expect and how to behave. The feed is conducted so that there is minimal impact on the shark’s natural behavior and the environment. Teaching divers about the way sharks are likely to react to their presence and to the food in the water is an essential part of an operator’s responsibilities.
The feed in Beqa is well run with divers placed behind a low rock wall while chain mail clad staff feed sharks from a bucket several meters away. Safety divers with shark sticks are also in place. Nothing is guaranteed, but I felt both the thrill of the experience but also safe, and of course wanted to be closer! I entered the water fully informed and at my own risk.
Incidentally, the only time I have not felt comfortable around sharks was at a very shallow feed (knee deep water) of exclusively blacktip reef sharks in Raja Ampat. Admittedly I was the only person underwater (with mask and snorkel) while everyone else was standing. But I literally hid behind my camera and hoped (for the footage and the sharks) while bait was thrown in front of me. My camera was no longer a tool, but rather a shield! I wasn’t afraid of the sharks themselves, simply that they might mistake my fingers for fish.
There are many arguments both for and against shark feeding. Ultimately it is up to you as an individual to decide what is right before participating. Be informed of the risks and enter the water with an understanding of shark behaviour.
I consider myself lucky to have encountered sharks spontaneously in the wild. I think the virtues of shark feeding, if well run, outweigh the possible negative outcomes. The environment, the economy and the divers participating can all have very positive benefits.
Personally, I just can’t get enough of these beautiful creatures! I'd love to hear what you think.