Thursday, April 28, 2011

Undercurrent on Shark Feeding!

Yes we feed Sharks - Terry-fic pic by Terry Goss!

Gotta hand it to the folks at Undercurrent.
Starting with the idiotic title, they have managed to post the by far most preposterous piece of utterly stupid anti Shark feeding shit published by a dive magazine, ever.

WTF has happened?
What has possessed Ms Richardson to provide a platform for the ramblings of the anti industry zealots instead of trying to remain impartial like in the past? Tell you what happened: she clearly doesn't have the slightest clue about Shark behavior (poor innocent Cristina's Caribbean Reefs are not solitary but gregarious) or the Shark diving industry and its protocols, and is obviously increasingly believing and parroting what the clowns she is interviewing are feeding her.

Case in point, Ralph Collier.
No Vanessa, Ralph is neither a researcher, nor a scientist.
He is the prototype of what the Swiss call a Sesselfurzer, as in "someone who farts from a couch", very much reminding me of the Shark-hating voyeuristic parasite. His claim to fame is to head his Shark Research Committee (are there any other members?) whose only research consists in recording GW attacks on the Pacific coast of the US and publishing the statistics in a series of forgettable amateur publications. Like Ritter with whom he shares an affiliation, or whatever, to the SRI and the GSAF, he is the ultimate Shark pornographer who professes to be furthering Shark conservation but then ultimately reduces Sharks and their life history to one single aspect, that of Shark/human interactions, meaning Shark attacks.
Having been elevated to rank of "Shark expert" by the misguided invitation of the Egyptian authorities, he is now obviously basking in the limelight and being invited to run his mouth on topics about which he obviously doesn't have the slightest shred of knowledge, let alone expert competence.

What Collier spouts is not new.
It's basically a textual rehash of his interview on the atrocious Red Sea Jaws where he asserts that feeding Sharks will lead to attacks on innocent bystanders. The "proof": one single video showing divers hand feeding one single OWT with Fish stored in a fanny pack - which according to Collier has led that Shark to subsequently attack the hands and buttocks of two victims, leading the great researching scientist to derive a general rule pertaining to all Sharks in the Red Sea!
Howz that for taking intellectual and methodical shortcuts!

So we're looking at a shark habituated to human beings for getting food, and humans had taught the shark where the food was. And this occurred frequently in the Red Sea. With overfishing in the area, sharks have to come up to the reef area to feed, and now associate food with the human form. It's very much like training your family dog. When it sees your hand, it sits up to get a bite of that treat.

Right!
That's EXACTLY what trained family dogs do: they sit up whenever they see a hand (notabene, a hand that does not hold any food!), meaning all the time, and when hungry, they run out of the house and randomly bite the hands (and very possibly even the ass!) of passers by!
Which obviously begs the question, does Collier own a completely crazy dog - or may he be simply pompously bloviating without the slightest knowledge about the behavior of either dogs or Sharks.
You be the judge of that.

The rule is simple.
To know about the specific behavior of an animal, you need to observe that animal when it is engaging in that specific behavior, and this over an extended period of time. If you unable to do so (and I betcha that Collier's personal experience with Sharks is limited to maybe a few cage dives with GWs at best), you need to talk to the people who do, or read what they publish on the subject.
The people who feed Sharks and who observe Sharks that are being fed are some divers, several Shark diving operators and a handful of Shark researchers - and the fishermen and spear fishermen!

Surprised about the latter?
Fishermen do not only feed Sharks by presenting them baited hooks; many of them attract and often end up feeding Sharks when they drag in struggling fish and when they subsequently clean their catch and throw the scraps into the ocean. Spear fishermen are notorious for attracting, and even conditioning Sharks when they shoot fish and often find themselves embroiled in a competitive struggle over their prey. These people number in the hundreds of thousands and if anybody should be examined for possibly causing an increase of Shark attacks on the public, it should be them - not the few dozen operators conducting baited Shark dives!

But I'm not here to deflect and obfuscate.
I'm certainly not about to give you the spiel about how we, the Shark diving operators educate the public and contribute to Shark conservation, as it got nothing to do with the issue at hand. The issue at hand is whether divers feeding Sharks leads to an increase of attacks on people who do not partake in those events, like Collier asserts.
That is a testable hypothesis.

The first of the possible tests is simple.
A. Are there more Shark attacks on the public at or around Shark feeding sites compared to similar control sites.

Let me start with a pathetically trivial statement.
In order for there to be a Shark attack, a person and a Shark will have to be in the same place at the same time. Thus the incidence of attacks will inevitably depend on the following variables: the number of Sharks and the number of people present in a determined location; and also, the activity and behavior those people and the Sharks are engaging in.

With that in mind and considering that feeding Sharks will aggregate some species, one would indeed expect an increase in Shark attacks in the vicinity of Shark feeding sites - but when one analyzes the details, it is not quite that unequivocal.
In 12 years of feeding Sharks here in Fiji, we have witnessed
  • a staggering increase in the number of Bull Sharks that roam wide ranges but regularly visit Shark Reef once they have discovered that it's a good place;
  • a negligible increase in the number of the much more resident Greys, Whitetips and Blacktips, a species that does not roam and is thus not likely to be attracted from locations afar;
  • but then, a decrease in the number of intermediate Sharks like the Silvertips, Lemons and Nurses, and possibly even Tigers;
  • and with the exception of one single fly-by by a spooked Great Hammerhead, zero sightings of any other species, this despite of the fact that we regularly introduce 2-300 kilos of yummy bloody bait and despite being situated on the fringes of 300m deep Beqa Channel and of Beqa Lagoon that are all being prowled by a plethora of other Sharks like Zebras and Hammerheads but also pelagics like OWTs, Silkies and Duskies.
And what about Shark attacks?
There are only two Shark feeding operations in the country, Beqa Adventure Divers and the guys down the road, and we both conduct our Shark dives on the southern coast of Viti Levu facing Beqa Lagoon. Documented Shark attacks in the vicinity: a big fat zero, ever.
The few documented Shark attacks have happened in Taveuni where Tigers Sharks prowl the coast of the current-swept Somosomo Straights; in the mouth of the Sigatoka River where surfers insist on frolicking on a break despite of murky water and the occurrence of large Bulls and Tigers; and in various locations where spear fishermen have defended their catch, often at night.

Anybody wanting to venture a guess about the results from elsewhere?
More importantly, would any of the bloviating Shark attack experts please care to comb his collection of data in order to prove or disprove a causal connection? Maybe for once act like what they purport to be, forgo their idiotic ad hoc speculation and engage in the onerous task of following the scientific method instead?

B. What about the risk of Sharks biting people during Shark dives?

Let's go back to the above trivial statement and variables.
When it comes to baited Shark diving, the obvious, and equally pathetically trivial rule is this.
  • the more Sharks are present, the higher the risk of a Shark bite
  • the more divers are present, the higher the risk of a Shark bite
  • the more dives are being conducted, the higher the risk of a Shark bite
  • the closer the divers and the Sharks interact, and the more frequently those interactions occur, the higher the risk of a Shark bite
So, yes, unequivocally, Shark diving increases the risk of a Shark biting a person!
And the question of baiting versus non baiting? Yes, of course baiting increases the risk, as it draws in more Sharks and leads to closer interactions!
Duh!

The consequences? Please re-read this.
Some divers are happy to experience Sharks when and where they occur naturally. Others wish to predictably experience other species that are highly skittish and/or do not aggregate naturally and thus need to be attracted with bait. Assuming that baiting does not harm the animals, and so far, nothing indicates it does, it's not a matter of prohibiting baited Shark dives, it's a matter of ensuring a maximum of safety by adopting the best possible safety protocols!
Is there a residual risk - yes of course there is, especially for us in the front line!

But what about the motivation for those bites?
Please re-read this. It is, to the best of my knowledge, what we know about why Sharks bite people - and please correct me if you think I'm wrong.

With that in mind, I assert that nearly all of those bites are not predatory in nature.
Contrary to the plethora of bloviating Sesselfurzer, I look back on nearly 40 years of diving and on thousands of Shark dives, most of which in baited conditions. In all those dives with dozens of different species in different situations world wide, I have never been in a situation where I had the impression that a Shark was sizing me up as potential food, not one single time - and incidentally, everybody in the industry I have talked with shares the exact same observations.

I have however been subjected to multiple threat displays, this by Grey Reefs exhibiting agonistic hunch displays, by Silvertips becoming stiff and jerky and more recently, by large dominant Bull Sharks gulping and ramming me with their snout.

I have also witnessed several Shark strikes.
All but two were by Sharks biting the people directly handling the bait. All of them were characterized by one or more of these factors: competitive, frenzy-like situation; bad visibility; lack of concentration/distraction of the feeder; feeder being bitten in his left hand which was holding more bait; non-dominant, sub-adult animal barging in.
The two remaining strikes were retaliatory bites by Silvertips on people denying them access to bait, very much like the famous incident where a Silvertip bit Dinah Halstead in PNG.

Consequently, our procedures include the following
  • all divers wear dark full body wetsuits and especially, dark gloves as pasty white hands sticking out of dark wetsuits may be mistaken for bait, especially in low visibility
  • we maintain a clear separation between the customers and the Sharks
  • the feeders wear chain mail gloves to minimize the effects of accidental bites
  • we hand feed in order to always control the bait and to be able to withhold food once we deem that the animals are starting to behave competitively. In situations that become too tense, we temporarily interrupt our routine, retreat and wait for the animals to calm down again - which incidentally, they always do
  • the feeder is flanked by bodyguards monitoring any dead angles and gets rotated out after ten minutes in order to prevent lapses in concentration
  • there is only one feeder acting as the focal point for the animals, and he only ever holds a single piece of bait
  • we do not feed in bad visibility of less than 10 meters and are particularly alert when the visibility drops, as we have observed that this is when the Sharks (who do not see through murky water any better than we do) tend to be particularly edgy as they have to rely on their other, less precise senses when approaching the feeder
  • nobody but us approaches the bait bin, ever
Which brings me straight back to Richardson's stupidity.
It mentions two Shark attacks, that on Groh and that on Jimmy.

Jimmy was apparently bitten by a Caribbean Reef, a competitive, edgy and strictly piscivorous species, whilst handling bait in murky conditions. These to me are perfect preconditions for a mistake by the animal.

Groh was apparently positioned right next to the bait cage, meaning that the Bull Shark that bit him may have been engaging in behavior aimed at deterring a perceived competitor.
Furthermore, once the Shark destroyed the bait container and a lot of sand was kicked up in the process, it was trying to navigate in very reduced visibility and water saturated with fish juices, thus losing its sense of orientation and possibly mistakenly biting the first solid object it came across, i.e. Groh's leg. Was it really exactly so - dunno but it is certainly plausible.

And the Ritter attack?
The interpretation of what triggered it (= a stupid guy doing stupid things with macro predatory Sharks) keeps changing but to me, it's rather irrelevant anyway: this is clearly a predatory attack where the animal first tested and then devoured Ritter's calf.
Accident my ass!

C. Last query: are Sharks that are being fed by divers (and what about those that are being fed by fishermen and spearos?) more prone to bite people than unfed Sharks.

This is what Collier is asserting and Richardson is parroting - and of course what is being really asserted, is that fed Sharks will not engage in just any attack, but that they will be conditioned to perpetrate predatory attacks on humans.
This is of course a tricky one to document - notabene one way or the other!

There is of course no such thing as a generic "Shark" engaging in generic "Shark behavior".
Instead, Sharks are very different behaviorally both when it comes to species but to complicate matters, even when it comes to sex and age within the same species, all the way to pronounced individual character traits that can be shaped by individual experiences.
Also, the behavior of a species can be very different in different locations or at different times of the day, etc.

But having said that, I can share the following.
Our flagship species, i.e. the Bull Sharks that frequent Shark Reef have been fed for the past 12 years and are undoubtedly one of the most conditioned population of predatory Sharks on the planet.

Bull Sharks are very timid and hardly ever approach divers.
But we want our customers to experience them, and this is the reason why we resort to luring them in with bait, and to reward them whenever they approach one of our feeders in the way we like, i.e. from the left and slowly.
This is called training by positive reinforcement and I can assure you that contrary to all the pledges to the contrary that are meant to appease the tree huggers, all Shark diving operators feed the Sharks when trying to attract species that are shy and in locations where those species do not aggregate naturally. Teasing only just does not work long-term as the animals are not being rewarded and will simply stop coming.

It is thus fair to state that by feeding our Bull Sharks, we are conditioning them to approach people and thus engage in behavior they would not normally display.
But here's the catch: we observe that unlike Collier's demented family dog, our Bull Sharks will not simply approach just anybody: instead, they will only approach determined people, and this mainly only when those people are proffering food!

Example?
Look no further than when we are training a new feeder. For weeks on end, he will be standing next to the bin brandishing his treats - and the Sharks will look him up but never take a single bite! Talk about an exercise in total and utter frustration!
Eventually, a single animal who is very likely not one of the old-timers but instead a newbie who doesn't yet know anybody else will take a first offering and be forever linked to this one particular feeder. Only over time, some of the other Sharks will deign to come in for a snack, however really only when they have no other choice because their favorite human happens to have a day off.
Incredible - and yet, it's totally true!

Or here's another example.
I've been diving the Fiji Shark Dive since 2003, first twice and now, up to five times weekly.
I never feed the Sharks. What I do, is to observe and film them as part of our ongoing long-term monitoring. Over a very long period of time and by proceeding in very small increments, I have been able to attain a status whereby the Sharks appear to tolerate and at times largely ignore my presence, allowing me to roam freely among them without any discernible effects on their behavior.
But when people other than me or Rusi venture in front, the Sharks will inevitably retreat - unless we accompany them, and even then, their behavior will be decidedly more diffident!

And lastly, we observe this.
We frequently dive Shark Reef for other reasons, be it in order to service our moorings or because we are monitoring its health and changes in the composition of its population of Fishes.
The Bulls live deeper in the channel and when we don't carry any bait, chances of seeing them are extremely slim and limited to occasional fly-bys by single individuals. We have even mimicked the exact dive profiles of our Shark dives, as a control, and thus without any bait - again with the exact same result that the Bulls were simply not interested.

So much for the assertion that fed Sharks will approach and attack people - and this after 12 years of conditioning them to the presence of divers!

Granted, this only applies to the specific Bull Sharks that frequent the SRMR.
But until somebody comes and proves that a specific individual Shark that has been fed has increasingly attacked people in un-baited conditions, nothing will ever convince me that what I'm experiencing in Fiji does not apply to all Sharks that are being fed by divers anywhere!

There you have it, that's my take - thanks for your patience in trying to follow my rant.
Still think that Collier is an expert on Shark attacks in the Red Sea?

And what about Undercurrent?
Looking forward to reading Part number two - and very much hoping that Ms Richardson will start talking about the real problem that is besieging Sharks, i.e the global fishery targeting their fins! Not that I believe she will after this total fiasco.
But then, as they say, hope springs eternal!

5 comments:

OfficetoOcean said...

Great blog, possibly your best I've read...The link people make between feeding and shark attack is lazy and usually made by people with little or no understanding of shark behaviour or shark attack.

Sharks are exhibiting, essentially, natural behaviour, in scavenging food. Is a human feeding a shark normal behaviour for a human? Probably not but what is normal anyway?

The simple fact is that since the increase in numbers of people getting up close and personal to sharks has grown over the years, the number of attacks has shown a yearly decrease, aside from the odd year with a slight jump caused by concentrated periods of shark bite incidents (which have nothing to do with feeding.)

As I said in my article in 2008, there is an enormous difference between a dive operation feeding sharks, and a shark feeding dive operation.

Fiji and The Bahamas both have hugely popular shark feeding operations and how do the "attack" statistics compare to Florida where shark feeding is outlawed? If the question is raised about stopping humans feeding sharks then the implications for fishermen, spearfishermen and fishing boats would be huge and unenforceable.

In short, that article is complete horse shit (pardon my french)

DaShark said...

Yer absolutely right David, as always.

Thing is, as you know, any anti feeding legislation always contains exemptions for those folks, this despite of the fact that it is clearly them that have the biggest negative impact.

Go wonder - but then again, not surprised!

But to have what I once considered to be a reputable dive publication spew that same nonsense is problematic to say the least.

Not so reputable anymore!

OfficetoOcean said...

It's a weird thing that a lot of these people assume that sharks can gorge themselves at these feeding sites and this encourages them to eat even more, it just doesn't make sense! There could be a cheeky argument to say that feeding sharks would actually REDUCE the risk of shark attack by keeping them well fed...I'm not suggesting this of course but it makes as much sense as their argument...

DaShark said...

Yup that wud be cheeky! :)

But ya know what - there is however a not-so-cheeky argument that in my experience, "tame" Sharks are far less edgy and way more relaxed around divers than their "wild" counterparts!

If agonistic behavior is principally the result of Sharks feeling threatened and defending themselves, it could result in less confrontation and possibly, less bites.

Having said this, conducting baited shark dives is always tricky as the animals are in feeding mode.
As per my post, we try to counteract that by keeping the Sharks and the humans separated.
If everybody did that I'm convinced that Shark diving would be much, much safer - but as you know, the image hunters always want to get close and personal.

Herein lies the challenge for the folks who conduct commercial Shark dives, to find the ideal combination between the safety protocols and the ambitions of the customers.
You know my call: safety always first!

OfficetoOcean said...

Totally agree! The last point in particular is hugely important, when operators concentrate on pushing the envelope more than the wellbeing of their clients and sharks, only the sharks end up suffering en masse in the event of human negligence which leads to an injury. The sharks will get the blame and the industry as a whole, will be accused of negligence which is hugely unfair on the many excellent operators around the world.