Sunday, February 22, 2015

Shark Strike in the Azores - Debate!

Oh for crying out loud!

Have you seen this?
Spare yourselves the 40 bucks - in essence, the article recounts how a Blue Shark bit the fin of a pal of the authors, and this thusly.
An Unprovoked Attack by a Blue Shark Prionace glauca (Chondrichthyes: Carcharhinidae) on a Spear Fisherman in Terceira Island, Azores, Northeast Atlantic

On July 24, 2013, near a shallow water rocky reef approximately 50 m from the coastline, a 48-year-old spear fisherman was surprised by a blue shark that bit his right flipper. The incident occurred on the South coast of Terceira Island, Azores, Portugal, Northeast Atlantic, where a shark attack or conflict is a very rare phenomenon, having only 3 minor incidents previously recorded...

Late afternoon the spear fisherman entered the water and swam away from the adjacent fishing port, now converted into a leisure summer area, toward the tip of the adjacent rocky reef. 
There, he saw a school of Atlantic Bonito, Sarda sarda (Bloch, 1793) and immediately dove to place himself in a position suitable to target one of the fish swimming in front of him. As he descended to a depth of approximately 10 m, he felt his right foot being pushed and turned his head to see an approximately 2.1 m total length blue shark biting his flipper...

At the same time, he reported that at least 5 more similar-size blue sharks were close by, and he was able to chase the first specimen away simply by touching it with his left leg. The sharks disappeared, and the victim continued to fish in that same area with no further sightings.
And then the authors have the audacity to attribute the incident to Shark feeding as follows.
These offshore, mainly pelagic species do have coastal habits when in close proximity to oceanic islands, as happens to be the Azores. Moreover, they are attracted by tourist operators with feeding stimuli and may be already in the process of associating these stimuli with humans, namely, divers. Contrary to well-known coastal sites where this practice is common and local sharks seem to have residential habits while becoming conditioned by specific diving sites, Azorean targeted species roam vast areas and far away from the open water zones where they are mainly attracted.

In spite of the fact that some of the most dangerous species are seldom seen in the Azores, we believe that this practice of proximity and feeding stimuli to open water nonresident sharks is potentially dangerous and may well lead to more, possibly very serious, accidents in Azorean waters in the future.
In our opinion, close proximity of large predatory vertebrates to humans may well lead to accidents that sometimes may even be lethal. Apex predators, when accustomed to being enticed with food by humans, either for tourist purposes or from simple curiosity, are known to increase attacks.
Changes in shark behavior due to touristic activities such as “shark diving” were also documented by Hammerschlag et al.

We do think that care and common sense must surely prevail in these cases, while dealing with situations than can easily get out of control and lead to serious risks and overwhelming panic situations, which, if nothing else, will inevitably affect tourist activities as a whole.
Not so fast, says Juerg.
Here is his reply, unabridged.
Shark Attacks and Shark Diving 

To the Editor:
It is with great astonishment and concern that I read the letter to the editor by Barreiros et al in which the authors report an attack by a blue shark on a spear fisherman in the Azores.
Whereas the first part of the article accurately details the circumstances of the accident, Barreiros et al, in the second part,devise a far-fetched and illegitimate connection with shark div ing, in particular with shark feeding.

Shark-induced human injuries are among those inter actions between humans and wildlife that arguably receive the most media and public attention.
The general arguments of shark feeding critics are that 1) luring or feeding sharks over a period of time has the potential to condition them and that this conditioning could lead to sharks associating the presence of humans with food; and by insinuation, 2) make them aggressive toward humans. This in turn could lead to 3) an increase in accidents (eg bites)at shark feeding sites when no food is provided. Concern also exists that 4) regular shark feeding at ecotourism sites may increase the risk of shark attacks on ocean users in surrounding areas.

The first argument is beyond scientific controversy.
There is ample empiric evidence that elasmobranchs can be conditioned and are capable of learning to associate, for example, specific locations with food rewards. Recent studies looking at long-term trends in shark abundance at such sites have found numbers,at least of certain species, increasing over time,which further supports the quite unsurprising conclusion that sharks can learn to associate specific locations with food. It is this very capability shark diving operators capitalize on to set up profitable and sustainable businesses. No empiric evidence exists that would support the other 3arguments.

If shark feeding critics implicitly deduce them from the first argument,one has no other choice than to assume that what critics mean is not sharks “associating” humans with food, but “regarding” them as a food source. This could be viewed as semantics, but they are the very arguments on which authorities have based the implementation of legislation on shark feeding bans.
For example, in 2 highly publicized cases in 2002, Florida and Hawaii banned the practice of shark feeding while diving or snorkeling in their respective state waters.

Barreiros et al use a certainly tragic but single shark accident to fire an unsubstantiated broadside at the nascent shark diving industry in the Azores.
If shark feeding critics are serious about their assertion that sharks regard humans as food, then it is time to come up with fact sand figures. In doing so, the results of the respective studies will add to the objectification of the public discourse about feeding sharks as a tourism attraction. If shark feeding critics continue to refuse to address the respective questions by applying the scientific method, then their arguments remain what they currently are: tendentious and uninformed.

Juerg Brunnschweiler, PhD ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
And this is the riposte by the authors.
In Reply to Shark Attacks and Shark Diving

To the Editor:
 In his letter, Dr Juerg Brunnschweiler expresses both astonishment and concern regarding our paper when stating that it “devises a far-fetched and illegitimate connection with shark diving, in particular with shark feeding.”

We do not agree with Dr Brunnschweiler’s comments, because 1) our paper is not a “criticism” of either shark diving nor shark feeding but yet a description of an attack that might have had some kind of connection with the growing industry of shark diving in the Azores; 2) we clearly expressed a legitimate concern that, contrary to shark species with residential habits, the blue shark that caused this attack has pelagic habits and roams coastal areas of oceanic islands, and is the only species targeted by the Azores commercial shark diving companies; 3) the possibility—although rare—of interactions with humans and eventual attacks are real and may cause collateral damage to man upstream and downstream areas of maritime tourism in the Azores; and 4) panic and disproportionate fear, something that is worldwide associated with sharks, are critical issues and may lead to other types of accidents.

We understand and respect the diving operators’ will to capitalize on this specific niche of tourism. 
However, we think that it is our duty and even a responsible obligation to describe well documented events and discuss them within the scientific community. Throughout the world, many accidents presenting several degrees of gravity do occur. However, it is known that many remain unreported, either because they occur in remote areas or because there are many types of political pressures to avoid their knowledge precisely not to harm some types of touristic initiatives. That is one of the reasons why Dr Brunnschweiler’s comment when asking for “facts and figures” is so difficult to achieve.

And yet,in his last paragraph, DrBrunnschweiler expresses a very inelegant affirmation when he doubts our ability to use the “scientific method.”
We are certain that he knows perfectly well that we did use it, but numbers do not appear—and probably that will remain as it is for a long time simply because (and may we add, fortunately) shark attacks are rare.

Our arguments are precautionary and cautious.
Enticing predators and especially apex predators with food will lead to conflicts between humans and wildlife, and these happen all the time and in many places. This is not the first time that the description of an attack with a discussion on possible causes is criticized, and we thank Dr Brunnschweiler for doing precisely that. Discussing these aspects, however, may well lead to more caution and common sense when dealing with these types of animals. That will certainly improve human-wildlife relations, reduce conflicts, and certainly diminish high degrees of intolerance toward wildlife—and that will ultimately be of great help in protecting precisely these animals, including sharks.

In conclusion,we would like to add that, apparently, Dr Brunnschweiler expressed his legitimate concern for the industry of shark diving. We express our deep concern on behalf of the welfare of both humans and sharks.
Deep concern huh.
My take?
  • First, there is ONE scenario whereby the authors would be correct.
    That is, if some fool had been feeding Blue Sharks on that reef 50 meters away from the adjacent fishing port, now converted into a leisure summer area. I've said it before: location matters, and establishing a Shark feeding dive right in front of a tourist area would be utterly reckless and negligent, and the authors would be absolutely correct in asserting likely causality and being deeply concerned.
    But I don't think that's the case as every single picture of Blue Sharks from the Azores has been clearly taken in open ocean.
And if so, the assertion by the authors that they did use the scientific method is just plain ludicrous. Yes n=1 really does generally not allow for any deep insights, and Shark strikes are rare and thus elude science - and in fact, had they attributed the strike to the alignment of Mars and Jupiter, their finding would have had the exact same degree of veracity!
With that in mind, it would have been perfectly OK had they simply reported the incident - but once they started to speculate about the likely cause, then the scientific method would have mandated to examine all the possible scenarios and not simply jump to conclusions and blast what is obviously their pet hate, and this without a single shred of evidence.
So there.
  • Blue Sharks are big, bold and potentially dangerous.
    Yes they do not figure prominently in the Shark attack statistics - but that is both a figment of those statistics and also due to the fact that they are epipelagic and that there are usually not a lot of people perambulating in the open ocean. But as those gruesome shipwreck tales from WWII amply illustrate, large epipelagic Sharks will certainly investigate and eat people and thus, the surprise of the authors that a Blue Shark would approach, investigate and nip their pal is rather naive.

  • Incidentally, that's also not how a conditioned Shark would approach a person.
    As anybody that dives with fed Sharks can attest, they don't sneak in and then take a nip - that's typical of wild Sharks. Sharks that expect to be fed approach openly from the front and linger waiting for a handout.
  • But what were those half-dozen Sharks doing there in the first place?
    As the authors assert, the species is known to frequent coastal areas of oceanic islands so that's hardly surprising. In this case, it appears plausible that they may have been following their prey = those Atlantic Bonito, an equally epipelagic species that may in turn have been coming to the coast to feed.
  • Or maybe not.
    Maybe the cause for the presence of those Sharks was that the reef is frequently being used by spear fishermen. Or maybe it was the proximity to that fishing port. 
    Because let us never forget who feeds and conditions the Sharks: fishermen
    Spear fishermen produce fish blood and vibrations, attract Sharks and are frequently victims of Shark strikes. Fishermen feed Sharks with millions upon millions of baited hooks, clean their catch and discard bycatch, and specifically those Blues have been following fishing boats into port since time immemorial.  
    If there has to be talk of conditioning, that it is THAT the authors should have been focusing on, not a few people baiting with tiny scraps!
  • And what about the assertions that apex predators, when accustomed to being enticed with food by humans, either for tourist purposes or from simple curiosity, are known to increase attacks and that enticing predators and especially apex predators with food will lead to conflicts between humans and wildlife, and these happen all the time and in many places.

    Welcome to the fucking old tired "don't feed the Bear" argument!
    Yes "they" happen - but so far, when it comes to those big Sharks, that is simply not the case! Whereas accidental bites on feeders do happen, strikes let alone fatal ones on participating tourists are exceedingly rare, and any correlation (let alone causality) between Shark feeding and Shark strikes on the public at large is completely speculative and not at all supported by the evidence.

    In fact, and yes I'm repeating myself, people who feed large Sharks are acutely aware that it is dangerous and are exerting tremendous caution and common sense - and as a consequence, the danger of those activities is significantly smaller than interactions with other marine life (including smaller Sharks) that are being viewed as more harmless; and it is orders of magnitude safer than "normal" diving! 

  • In fact, if anybody had to be reprimanded, then it would have been the victim, for being totally reckless: for potentially attracting Sharks to a tourist area, for spearfishing at dusk when predators are known to feed and above all, for not immediately leaving the water but instead continuing to spear fish after having been nipped!

  • And finally.
    That will certainly improve human-wildlife relations, reduce conflicts, and certainly diminish high degrees of intolerance toward wildlife—and that will ultimately be of great help in protecting precisely these animals, including sharks.

    What a load of sanctimonious horse shit!
    Fishermen target Sharks for money - not because they hate them for biting people! That argument is frankly so stupid to be embarrassing!
    Want to save those Blues? Take a boat to Vigo and tell those fishermen to stop targeting the Azorean Blue Shark nurseries - or at least stop wasting people's time and patience with BS, and work on making a stock assessment and on implementing a management plan for sustainable Blue Shark fishing in the Azores!
    That's how real scientists contribute to Shark conservation!

  • And one very last remark: how the fuck did this manage to get a pass by the peer review?
Long story short?
It's exactly like Juerg states: this is not science but total bullshit, nothing more than a completely unsubstantiated broadside against the nascent Shark feeding industry in the Azores, and this clearly not based on the evidence but driven by one's uninformed prejudices.

And yes I can leave it at that.
Not impressed and once again, rather pissed off!


jsd said...

I didn't have the energy to read the whole thing but correct me if I'm wrong:-

A spearfisherman got his fin bitten by a pelagic shark while spearfishing and...



...and...'s someone else's fault.

Did I miss something?

DaShark said...

Nah, not really!

Only that a couple of researchers then found it worthy of using it as a pretext to go and blast the local Shark diving industry!

Unknown said...

Totally agree with you Mike. The fact that this paper has been published is shocking, I wouldn't be surprised if their were second intentions behind it.

DaShark said...

Yeah, maybe Michael.

IMO it's just a bunch of ignoramuses with reservations about "feeding the wildlife" bloviating about a topic they got no clue about and where they didn't even bother to spend the time to properly educate themselves.

Shark Diver said...

Who "pear" reviewed this paper. Richter and Collier?

DaShark said...

Good question! :)

Ian Campbell said...

Apologies for being late to the debate, but I rarely trust "scientific" papers where the the hypothesis test includes the words and phrases:

"We believe"

"...may well lead to more...serious attacks"

"In our opinion..."

"We do think..."

Not exactly phrases that you'd associate with respected research.

DaShark said...

Debate? what debate! :)

There's nothing worth "debating" as nothing has been proven!