Should the baiting of white sharks for cage diving be banned? This incredible photo (taken with a GoPro would you believe) has hit the internet and sparked a renewed debate over the methodology used to allow people to experience the white shark up close, and fueled a resurgence in conservationists questioning the morality of it all.
Over the years there has been ongoing debate, both downplaying the practice of baiting sharks in to interact with people (and boat motors, propellers, sharp-edged cages, and at times each other) as low-impact, and conversely there has been a strong argument condemning the practice as unethical, unnatural and perhaps even a contributor to shark attacks and incidents – a practice that alters the shark’s instincts and behaviours, encouraging them to increasingly associate boats and people with a source of food.
No one can argue against the wealth of scientific research and public awareness that has been born of cage diving studies, and the amazing film and television produced from them. The shark cage allows scientists, researchers and photographers an otherwise impossible opportunity to spend long hours observing the sharks first hand – underwater and in extremely close proximity. Also, for example, a family or person living in the middle of nowhere, who might rarely frequent the coastline, can nowadays observe and learn a lot about white sharks from the comfort of their living room, and in many cases become admirers of these spectacular predators via the images and information, whilst alleviating any misconceptions and fears they may have held – I mean, this is good thing right?
During the 1970s and 80s, cage diving with white sharks was almost exclusively the realm of these scientists and film-makers, and for the most part, people still weren’t that keen on the idea that they themselves might also be able to dive in a cage with these huge predators. As a result, cage diving expeditions were not an overly frequent thing, and something that, it could be argued, had a minimal direct impact on the great white shark as a species overall, other than allowing them to be seen and studied by the world.
In steps the tourism monster – in the 1990s and through to today, there has been a growing (and very lucrative) trade in the shark cage diving experience, with thousands of people taking the plunge to get their own first-hand encounter with the world’s most famous fish, and nowhere is this more prominent than in South Africa and South Australia. Such is the demand that you can book a dive for as little as A$120 in some places, making what was once an exclusive practice for well-funded scientists and affluent middle-class adventurers, something within the reach of most tourists. Demand is high, the experience exhilarating, but what will be the long term legacy that is delivered for the sharks themselves?
White sharks are considered a threatened species, with some estimates suggesting there are just a few thousand left in all of our oceans today. Protection status and conservation efforts have arguably seen a small rebound in their numbers from an era last century where plundering the sea without restraint was considered the norm. With so many unanswered questions remaining, is it time to put the brakes on this practice until we know more about how baiting wild predators for our entertainment will effect them in the years to come? Some of those questions are:
- Does baiting white sharks with food and stimulation whilst in the company of divers, people and boats, alter their instinctual behaviour and cause some of them to actively associate people, divers, small boats and swimmers with food? Is this a long-lasting imprinted change that may alter an entire species over time?
- Is it ethical or right at all to manufacture an artificial environment, where wild predators are teased and coerced with baits in order to give tourists a photo opportunity and operators a few dollars?
- Does frequenting this unnatural environment cause long-term damage to the sharks, with increased competition (shark on shark encounters), and physical collisions with unnatural objects such as metal cages and boat propellers?
- Does cage diving and shark chumming impede the natural migratory behaviour and activities of white sharks? Can or does this already have an impact (negative or positive) on their breeding activity and reproduction?
- Does the free supply of food from an easy and unnatural source requiring no hunting skill diminish the shark’s ability to naturally hunt and fend for itself?
Most of the above is yet to be determined, and whilst there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support a lot of it, nothing has been scientifically proven and put beyond doubt in the grand sense of it all. Studies on white shark behaviour around the Neptune Islands have reported changes over the last 7 years in the sharks’ behaviour due to the regular shark diving operations – mostly in the shark’s propensity to congregate at specific locations and for longer periods, likely due to the easy meals on offer and stimulation of the cage diving boats. In Western Australia, great whites are not known to congregate in specific areas for any length of time, but rather lead somewhat of a coastal nomadic lifestyle whilst there.
Shark Cage Diving Gansbaai in South Africa describes the encounter on its website as follows – “Great White sharks can smell the chum slick (crushed tuna/skipjack or sardines) from a considerable distance. In addition, our crew pulls decoys or bait lines closer to the cage and boat to lure the magnificent creatures even closer. The shark, being an inquisitive creature, often comes right up to the boat, bringing its head above the sea level far enough out of the water that you can touch it. The banks of awesome razor edged teeth are but centimetres away – the huge gaping jaws revealing the true danger of the imminent encounter. The most feared predator of all the seas has arrived.”
Calypso Star Charters who operate a cage dive tour off the Neptune Islands in South Australia promote a far more environmentally convincing approach, and boast that environmental considerations are at the forefront of their operation. They are certified and work closely with the CSIRO and government environmental authorities. They list that, “Calypso Star Charters are honoured to be fully licensed by the South Australian Department of Environment. We’re also permitted by the Fisheries Department to use berley (chum) to attract the Great White Sharks to our boat at the Neptune Islands Marine Park. Being permitted to berley provides you with the best possible chance of a shark sighting. Along with this license, we’re proud to be an Advanced Eco Certified Operator. Receiving this certification provides us with the recognition that we conduct our operations in a way that are environmentally conscious and sustainable whilst also providing an educational component.”
On the flip side of all of this controversy and mystery is one simple and powerful fact – a fact that has been well proven already. It is that, if we give people more access to the great white sharks, let them see their grace and power up close, first hand and from all angles, we create a world of informed, sensible and conservation minded people. By eliminating the hysteria and replacing it with real contact and experience, the world becomes more knowledgeable, and ultimately more respectful every single day towards the magnificent predators we have such as the white sharks. Never before have we had the opportunity to learn so much and so easily about these creatures, and each day we dispel more and more myths, replacing them with facts and the reassuring mindset that knowledge, rather than assumption, breeds.
Most of you would still argue that the Western Australian Government is still lagging quite a way behind in that department. Tragically another shark encounter there recently, in which a young man suffered life-altering injuries, had set that government off again on what appeared to be a vengeful path of retribution and overkill rather than rational shark management. In a scene that mirrored parts of Steven Spielberg’s famous film Jaws, the authorities hit the water, hunted down and killed two (protected) great white sharks in the aftermath of the incident, despite there being strong evidence and testimony from both shark attack experts and specifically the victim himself, that it was in fact two bronze whaler species sharks that had attacked him, not a great white. Forensic examination of the two white sharks’ corpses later revealed that there was no evidence to link those sharks to the shark attack victim. The Western Australian Government has tried to defend their position, claiming that the sharks were in the area near the attack, and under their new ‘imminent threat policy’, were targeted for destruction as a result.
In July 2012, Cage Shark Diving was banned outright in Western Australia after a spate of fatal shark encounters. A fisheries department report said there was some evidence to suggest that cage diving operations do ultimately effect the behaviour and particularly the migratory activity of white sharks, and as such it could pose a threat to surfers, swimmers and water users if cage diving operations were established in Western Australia. An article in Perth Now from the time reported, “research had found ‘two distinct populations’ of great whites in Australia – one that inhabits WA and South Australian waters, and another on the east coast” indicating the sharks in Western Australia may well often be the same sharks seen at other times in South Australia.
It’s the BIG question that is still looming – should we still be doing this? Should it be banned, or perhaps at least scaled back and regulated to ensure minimal effects on white shark behaviour and migratory patterns? Or should we be pushing and promoting this tourism venture in order to further research, greater understanding and acceptance of this species? LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK IN THE COMMENTS BELOW!