Shark feeding is necessary to entertain and educate
By Stuart Cove
As divers, we are environmental ambassadors, and we should work hard to protect the oceans and revere all that lives in it — including the top of the predatory food chain.
It wasn’t that many years ago when seeing a shark on a reef brought a cold shiver down your back. We were always taught that sharks should be feared as man-eaters and monsters. But as we learn more about these magnificent creatures, we understand how sharks play an important role in the survival of the reef.
I think sharks are worth saving, and through education, conservation and of course entertainment, our signature Shark Adventure dives here at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas provide an opportunity for people to connect with them.
Our shark dives attract the most common reef-dwelling shark in the Bahamas, the Caribbean reef shark. By controlling the bait given to the shark, the feed is dispensed at a slower rate, keeping them swimming in a calm and well-paced manner. Our shark feeders are highly trained to read the shark’s behavior, thus keeping the shark interaction exciting and as safe as possible for our guests.
Probably the most important objective we can accomplish with our interactions is to give our guests the opportunity to see sharks up close and personal. I believe everyone walks away with a greater appreciation.
However, there are some who think that controlled shark feeding in some way conditions sharks to be fed, and endangers their ability to hunt their own food. That’s sort of like saying if you had a snack in the afternoon you’d forget how to go home and cook dinner that evening. Sharks have millions of years of predatory programming that isn’t that easily broken.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much a Caribbean reef shark eats, a three-year research project by Simon Fraser University’s Tropical Marine Ecology Lab estimates that the average shark could eat up to 50 pounds of fish a week. Our shark interactions typically attract 40 or more sharks, which would require a diet of about 2,000 pounds of fish per week. We serve up about 15 to 20 pieces of fish parts — a small snack, but not anywhere close to sustaining a healthy diet.
The researchers at Simon Fraser have also discovered that the reefs where we conduct the shark interactions are more vibrant and full of other species of healthy reef fish than surrounding reefs. This could lead to the argument that decimating sharks for sport may be linked and contribute to dwindling world fish populations.
Zoos and aquariums fill a variety of roles, including education, conservation, research and entertainment. How does this differ from our shark interactions? We educate over 50,000 people each year, dispelling the myth that sharks are nothing more than man-eaters.
I truly believe sharks need a voice to help stop their destruction by long-lining and finning. If providing entertainment is a means of bringing awareness, then it’s just a small albeit valuable step toward saving our shark populations.
Stuart Cove is owner of Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas in Nassau, Bahamas, which offers daily shark encounters.
Shark-feeds are sideshows that disrupt the natural balance of shark behavior
By George H. Burgess
In the world of diving, the ultimate experience is an encounter with the marine realm’s apex predator. Shark. The word itself produces a psychic ripple, straddling the line between thrill and danger. That dichotomy and the call of nature are powerful attractants to many divers. The trouble is that by ecological definition, animals at the top of the food pyramid are few and far between.
Therein lies the problem. Historically, shark-diver encounters were relatively rare events. But spearfishing revealed that sharks could be attracted and, if this is done repetitively, trained. The occasional fish on a spear tip soon graduated to regular offerings on dives, then morphed into frozen chum balls at dedicated sites. The goal: predictably deliver a product to paying customers. Sharks cooperated, and feeding “sideshows” blossomed in many areas of the world.
Yes, sideshows. Attracting sharks with food and its progression to manipulation — be it overt handling of the animal or hand feeding — squarely moves these events from eco-experience into orchestrated entertainment. Sharks swimming circles around a chum ball is no more than an underwater circus. Minus the bragging rights, it’s no different than watching feeding time at SeaWorld.
And as with circus animals, the sharks’ behaviors are unnatural. Sharks are normally solitary predators, so their en masse actions are anything but natural. Simply getting the sharks to the site reminds us of Pavlov’s dog — no bell, but the sound of an outboard at repeat dive sites now attracts sharks to the boat before food is offered. As sharks begin to associate the sound of an engine with free food, there may be consequences for other groups on boats. Divers seeking shark-free dives may have unwelcome escorts, recreational fishers may reel in scavenged trophies, and commercial fishers may lose catches and gear.
One especially worries about the ecological consequence of bringing so many predators into one small area. Does aggregation of sharks and other fishes lead to increased opportunities for the spread of diseases and parasites? Does the proffered food provide the nutrition they need to remain healthy? Are they fully satiated by the provided food or must they also feed in the area? Is that concentrated predation pressure too high, resulting in the reduction of other fauna, including desirable game and food fishes? Are the adjacent areas now denuded of top predators, changing the natural dynamic, or is the net result an unnatural increase in shark populations?
Any way you look at it, there is altered behavior and ecological disruption. The popularity of diving traditionally has been driven by appreciation of the diversity, beauty and behaviors of marine denizens. Attracting any animals ¬— on land or sea — is an act that can deleteriously affect the environment and the attracted animals. That’s why feeding bears, baboons, raccoons, dolphins, alligators, sharks, and other terrestrial and aquatic animals is banned in many countries and states.
George H. Burgess is director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History (flmnh.ufl.edu/fish), and also curates the International Shark Attack File.