This photo was taken of me and Nichlas by Pia Venegas on our first shark dive at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas.
In last week’s post I shared some facts about sharks. This week I’d like to talk about the debate that surrounds shark feeding dives. I’ll admit I’m little nervous to tackle this somewhat controversial issue because I don’t want to offend anyone, but I need to stop worrying about making everyone happy and dig into the grit of it all. As a general rule I believe humans shouldn’t meddle with the natural world. Humans should observe, study, and appreciate life outside of our domain, but I think we need to leave it alone too. I’m alright with shark feeding as its done at Stuart Cove’s in the Bahamas because I think the benefits outweigh the negatives. I’ve never been on a shark feed anywhere else so I can’t speak about it, but if you have I’d love to know about your experience.
Yesterday Nichlas told me that the last living white rhino died and that giraffes are facing a silent extinction. I knew white rhinos were really in trouble, but had no idea that giraffes were in such danger. It shouldn’t be shocking, human greed and ego is really decimating the planet. The over 400 species of sharks face the same fate as rhinos and giraffes unless we do something about it. Sharks maintain the health of our oceans by eating the weak fish and controlling the food chain. These elegant predators are perfectly designed for life in the ocean and have shaped their ecosystem for more than 400 million years.
The fast disappearance of sharks in some parts of the world, thanks to industrialized fishing, has resulted in mass fish die-offs. Humans kill 100 million sharks every year. Most shark hunting is done for shark parts, the sharks are caught and thrown back into the water still alive after their fins have been removed. Unable to swim, the sharks cannot breathe, they sink to the bottom and drown in an excruciating death. Shark fins are a hot commodity in Asia where they are cooked in shark fin soup. Shockingly the fins are not used for taste, rather they create a gelatinous consistency in the soup. Something that could be achieved with other ingredients.
Based on the myth that sharks don’t get cancer, shark products are also sold as phony remedies to ward off disease in Asian markets. Sharks do get cancer. Scientists have documented hundreds of cases of sharks with cancer. Nevertheless the multi-million dollar cartilage industry has decimated shark populations. Companies harvest up to 200,000 sharks a month in American waters alone to be sold as cancer fighting amulets.
After years of unregulated shark killing the inevitable catastrophe of it all is starting to be apparent. Sharks are essential to the survival of the entire planet, including mankind. The fate of the shark is ours as well. As Sylvia Earle said, “No blue, no green.” Shark feeding dives are a way to preserve shark populations. Locations, like the waters near Stuart Cove’s in the Bahamas, where shark feed dives take place generally have more robust shark populations. It’s possible that without the feeds, the sharks wouldn’t be there either.
Some people are appalled that anyone would run a business for profit on shark feeding dives. Yet these same people happily pay to visit aquariums and dolphinariums. In my opinion sharks, dolphins, and other large marine animals don’t belong in captivity. At least the sharks we feed in the Bahamas continue to live wild in the open ocean. In our day and age dollar is king. Shark feeding dives increase the dollar value of a live shark, this provides the animal with financial protection. Data corroborates that nations that actively patrol their waters to enforce anti shark poaching legislation usually have a vibrant scuba diving industry. The Bahamas has strong anti-shark poaching fleets patrolling their waters. A live shark in the Bahamas is said to generate more than $250,000 US dollars in tourism during its lifetime, whereas a dead shark is worth only a fraction of that one time.
A secondary benefit of the shark feeds is that they create thousands of ambassadors for sharks. Thanks to movies like Jaws and sensationalized media coverage, sharks have a really bad reputation. I bet you know someone who won’t swim at the beach because they are afraid of a shark attack. I know many of these people. The United States averages about 16 shark attacks a year with less than one fatality every 2 years. Meanwhile, in the coastal USA alone lightening strikes and kills more than 41 people annually. Though we should respect the power of a shark, we don’t need to live in active fear. Sharks need advocates and I believe the best way to help protect shark populations is to expose people to these beautiful animals.
In the three weeks I have spent in the Bahamas diving with sharks, I have already engaged in a lot of conversation with friends and family all over the world about sharks based on my social media posts. Add that to the guests who participate in the shark dive at Stuart Cove’s and we have the potential to create thousands of ambassadors for shark rights who can help push through protection for these endangered species that might otherwise have failed. I’ll take this as an occasion to ask you to please sign any petition you see to stop shark brutality and preserve their natural environment. If you’re interested in taking action click on the link below to find some worthwhile petitions to sign.
Back to the controversy, opponents of shark feeds argue that sharks lose their ability to hunt naturally if they are fed. In response, I’d say that the amount of food offered at a typical shark feeding is tiny in proportion to the number of sharks present. According to shark behaviorist Erich Ritter, a bull shark needs to eat 4% of its own body weight in fish every day. That means the typical bull shark must eat 14 kilograms to sustain itself. A typical feed at Stuart Cove’s hosts 30-40 sharks. That means the feeder would need to take more than 340 kilograms of fish bait to supplant the sharks’ normal feeding behavior. Our feeders probably bring less than 9 kilograms of fish cuts per feed.
For those of you who are having trouble visualizing what an actual feed looks like I’ll briefly describe what happens. We take the guests down and sit them on a sandy bottom that is about 10 meters deep. Once the guests are situated, the shark feeder enters the arena with the bait box and the feed begins. Over the course of 25-30 minutes the feeder uses 2 foot sticks to hand out fish parts to the sharks. The actually feeding is done slowly, the sharks are around the entire time but they aren’t eating the entire time. Most feeders bring less than one fish cut, a piece of fish not a whole fish, per customer. If we had 20 guests on a dive, it’s possible that the feeder would prepare 15 fish portions which they would feed deliberately throughout the dive. Many sharks in the arena don’t even get a piece of fish and those that do are enjoying a small snack rather than a full meal. They still need to hunt.
Another criticism of shark feeding is that it encourages sharks to associate humans with food. I have read this all over the internet but can find no facts to back up the claim. Florida, where shark baiting in order to view has been illegal since the early 2000’s, has more instances of shark bites than anywhere else in the world. In 2014, 24 people were injured by sharks off Florida’s beaches where feeding is banned compared to 2 instances in the Bahamas where shark feeding is a huge industry.
The idea that sharks are developing a pavlovian response associating humans with food because of shark feeds is simply unfounded. It’s true the sharks in the Bahamas know that when a boat pulls up to the dive site they might get fed, but they aren’t looking to eat humans. People don’t smell or taste good to sharks. When we are 20 plus people in the water that are much bigger than a puny fish slab the sharks have no interest in us, they want the fish. The sharks largely ignore the humans and concentrate on getting as close to the bait box as possible.
All things considered, I’m proud and blessed to take part in the shark feeds at Stuart Cove’s. I believe the feeds are conducted in a way that respects the sharks and provides information to people that will help the sharks. I know not all shark feeds are the same, but what we do at Stuart Cove’s is responsible and safe for the sharks and humans involved. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to feed the sharks to find them in the ocean or to preserve their populations, but at present I believe the feeds are helping insure a future for sharks. We need to remember that though sharks live on water and we live on land, our fates are connected. The sharks would probably be better without us, but we depend on them.