Tuesday, July 01, 2014

To Feed or not to Feed!

Yawn - right? :)

But this is really rather good.
It's a collection of interviews about the ever controversial topic of provisioned Shark dives - and to my great surprise, it's overwhelmingly pro-industry, and even the reservations by some are well informed and as such, absolutely legit.
So bravo Scuba Diver - considering some of the moronic comments fielded in support of the WA Shark Cull, this was certainly timely!

Oh and they did interview yours truly.
True to her job description, Alice Grainger the charming editor did some brutal editing, and the result is uncharacteristically concise, this probably much to the relief of the readers.

No such luck for you!
Here's the interview, unabridged.

What has you experience been with the provisioning shark dives you run at Beqa?
How do you approach the controversy surrounding this divisive issue?

Let me try to address the second question first.
It touches on two aspects – one ethical and one factual.

Ethical considerations.

Some people oppose provisioned shark dives for ethical reasons, stating that they are inferior to natural encounters, and that they demean the animals.

This may surprise you – but I don't advocate Shark feeding!
On the contrary, I'm very much of the opinion that nothing beats the awesome experience of witnessing Sharks doing their natural thing, like in, say, Palau, Malapasqua, the Sardine Run, Ningaloo, Fakarava or Cocos!

But of course those predictable natural aggregations are rather rare.
Plus, some of those Sharks are very shy, meaning that the encounters, although highly rewarding, can be very brief indeed. Other than that, encountering Sharks in the wild is difficult for some species and all-but-impossible for others, meaning that in most cases, anybody wanting to showcase them to paying customers will have to resort to some form of baiting.

This is what we do in Fiji - not because we are “for” it but because it is a necessity and because we believe that it is neither harmful to the Sharks and their habitat nor to the humans, a fact that is increasingly being corroborated by recent research, see below.

Factual considerations.

People who oppose baited shark dives claim that they are harmful to the sharks and their environment, and that they teach sharks to associate humans with food, which in turn will lead to increased shark strikes on people.

When presented with such opinions, it is best to look at the evidence – and the evidence looks as follows.
  • Shark feeding appears unproblematic at the ecosystem level.
    All present research into those baited Shark dives appears to concur that those dives have little to no effect at large spatial and temporal scales. It appears pretty clear that far from becoming dependent on the handouts, those provisioned Sharks continue to fulfill their ecological roles and also continue to follow their normal life cycles as in e.g. mating, pupping and migrating.

  • There's no geographical correlation between Shark feeding and Shark strikes.
    In brief and with maybe the exception of South Africa, the overwhelming majority of Shark strikes occurs in locations where there are no Shark feeding operations - which is even more surprising if one considers that most of those dives have been established in locations that are known for their healthy Shark populations! And even if there were some correlation, it certainly does not equate causation!
But of course there are some big caveats.
  • There are certainly effects at small spatial and temporal scales.
    Shark feeding often aggregates the animals, and this can have local consequences. Documented examples of those local effects include increased aggression among sharks, competitive exclusion of other species by dominant sharks, or those postulated local behavioral changes and marginally increased residency of Great Whites in South Australia. Those effects however are strictly localized, and none of them has been shown to impinge on the fitness of those provisioned sharks, nor do they unduly alter their environment.

  • Conditioning via positive reinforcement likely happens.
    Sharks are certainly smart and it is absolutely plausible to assume that they may have learned to associate the boat noise with a subsequent feeding opportunity - and should food be presented at the surface, it is equally plausible to assume that they could be popping up next to other boats in the area! Those are certainly considerations any responsible shark diving operator has to keep in mind.

  • Location matters.
    Many Shark dives have been being established where there are already Sharks, meaning that objectively speaking, the risk profile is unlikely to change - but perceptions matter and like in the case of population centers like, say, Cape Town or Playa del Carmen in Mexico, the diving activity and associated increased publicity of sharks can lead to conflicts with the other local ocean users. Consequently, as a rule, the feeding locations need to be as remote as possible and should definitely not be established e.g. right in the middle of population centers or right in front of popular beaches etc.

  • Feeding protocols.
    Like I often state, the problem is not what one does, it is how one does it! Shark provisioning creates its own risks, and those risks need to be managed - meaning that all protocols should be chosen in function of minimizing the impact on both the animals and the habitat, and on maximizing the safety for the participants but also the public. E.g., everybody will hopefully agree that creating humongous chum trails or dumping indiscriminate amounts of bait to create feeding frenzies is probably a bad idea. Or as another example, we here go to great lengths to condition the Bulls never to come to the surface, lest we get accused of endangering other aquatic recreationists. In brief, we need to be in a position to demonstrate that we are always striving to conduct our dives in the most responsible way possible.
Which brings me straight to the first question. 

From the outset, our principal aim was to further shark conservation and research, for which we established the Shark Reef Marine Reserve in Fiji in close cooperation with local stakeholders and the relevant authorities. 
When it comes to the tourism component, we want our customers to experience being in the presence of such awesome animals with a maximum of enjoyment and a minimum of risk, as provisioned shark dives will always remain inherently dangerous undertakings – meaning that we do not allow interactive encounters or what has been dubbed “extreme shark diving”. Instead, we treat them to a carefully choreographed show where they remain essentially spectators, and endeavor to instill a sense of awe and appreciation that will hopefully motivate them to become shark conservation advocates. 

Our experience has been overwhelmingly positive. 
In ten years of operation, our protocols have led to zero incidents with our customers, and only very minor ones with our staff that operate in the front lines, this owing to the fact that the feeders wear protective gloves, dispose of bodyguards and generally follow very rigid safety protocols. The clients appear happy, the reef and the sharks are thriving, and the local community and the authorities are highly supportive, meaning that we are really very satisfied.

Yeah I know I know - same old same old.
But maybe worth repeating, lest we get too complacent!


Wordy McWord said...

I do believe one of my eyeballs has fallen from its socket...

Sam Cahir said...

Awesome Photography ;-)

DaShark said...

Indeed - awesome! :)

OfficetoOcean said...

I can't for the life of me figure out how to actually read the article

DaShark said...

You gotta go buy an actual magazine - it's not online!