While Floridian beachgoers may wonder if the state will suffer the same rash of shark attacks it did last summer, scientists are still debating what prompted the bites. The attacks weren’t more frequent than usual, but conservation groups have pointed fingers at four small tour operators that offer educational, adrenaline-packed feeding dives where, at popular underwater scavenging grounds, the companies bait sharks while stunned clients watch. Because of environmentalists" efforts, Florida has outlawed feeding aquatic wildlife, and this ban has global implications. In April, the Cayman Islands passed a similar ban, and Hawaii may follow suit.
"All wildlife managers agree that by feeding wildlife, you are increasing the risk that they will attack humans,"says Bob Dimond, president of the Marine Safety Group (MSG), one of the first environmental organizations to label shark diving unsafe. Dimond says feeding sharks makes them associate humans with food, and therefore makes them more likely to attack.
Additionally, MSG contends that shark feeding is bad for sharks. "Feeding these animals causes highly unnatural aggregations," says marine ecologist Bill Alevizon, the group’s scientific advisor. He is concerned that altering shark behavior could lead to over-predation of their prey, or could affect the animals" migratory or reproductive habits in unforeseeable ways.
However, some experts contend that feeding dives aren’t bad for sharks, aren’t responsible for attacks and educate the public about the animal’s ecological importance. Clive James of the British conservation group Shark Trust says shark-feeding operations have hosted thousands of bite-free dives, and Sam Gruber, a lemon shark expert at the University of Miami, has been feeding sharks for research purposes for 20 years with only a few incidents. Gruber says his fed sharks still behave and mate normally.
What has struck a nerve with some scientists, says Gruber, is that the Florida ban "allows spear fishing and chumming in order to kill sharks, but not diving to learn about sharks." And James agrees: "It’s difficult to educate people about sharks if you cannot show them one," he says. Dimond counters that the ban is consistent with national park wildlife laws.
According to Bob Burhans, the Birch Aquarium curator at Scripps Oceanographic Institute, education is key to shark survival. "Humans are killing more than 100 million sharks a year for their fins, and the populations can’t handle it." But Dimond insists shark feeding is a poor teaching tool.
James advocates banning new feeding operations, but he doesn’t support the shutting down of existing ones due to potential animal dependence and employment reasons. "Sadly and increasingly," he laments, "the saying "better an ecotourist shark than a finned dead shark" is a reality."