Teaching Great White Sharks To Link People With Food Is A Recipe For Disaster

October 21, 1998

UK CONTACT - Claire Bowles, New Scientist Press Office, London:
Tel: 44 171 331 2751 or email claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
US CONTACT - Barbara Thurlow, New Scientist Washington office:
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THE antics of unscrupulous operators of shark-diving tours could end in tragedy, say conservationists. They are worried by practices which may lead great white sharks to associate food with items such as surfboards or children's toys. Any resulting attacks could undermine years of effort to save these endangered marine predators.

In South Africa, people pay for a face-to-face meeting with the great white shark, one of the ultimate predators of the seas. Tourists go diving in cages that are supposed to protect them. But as interest has grown, five or more boats at a time have sometimes jockeyed for position in the narrow channel at Dyer Island near Cape Town, a magnet for great whites thanks to a breeding colony of seals, their favourite prey.

If the dive operators all acted responsibly, this melee might be harmless, say conservationists. But some use rusty cages that other operators have scrapped. "Guaranteed there will be a death or bad injury," says Craig Ferreira of the White Shark Research Institute in Cape Town, which itself runs carefully regulated shark-diving tours. Worse still, in addition to attracting sharks with food, some companies have been seen putting surfboards or children's toys into the water. Sharks are naturally curious and mouth objects floating on the surface.

"The sharks are getting the opportunity to find out that every time they see a surfboard there might be food around," says George Burgess, a shark expert at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. "One day they will find out there is a human on the other side of the sandwich."

There has been an increase in the number of shark attacks off the coast of South Africa this year. Most are by species other than great whites-indeed, there have been only 46 unprovoked great white attacks in South African waters since 1960. But if the activities of the dive operators are not curtailed, biologists fear that tourism-linked great white attacks are inevitable.

The experience of other shark tourism operations shows that sharks readily learn to associate boats with food. In the Caribbean, shark tour operators have for years conducted circus-like shows with black-tip and reef sharks, handing them fish. "The boat handlers even gun their engines to 'call in their babies' upon arrival at the dive sites," says Burgess. Years after the tourist boats have moved on to other sites, the sharks continue to react to boat engines-which can prevent other divers and water sports enthusiasts using the areas.

Sarah Fowler of the Shark Trust in Newbury, Berkshire, argues that tourism can be harnessed to promote the conservation of sharks. "Done the right way, shark-dive tourism is very important for the future of sharks," she says. But just one fatal great white attack on a tourist could undermine conservationists' efforts, re-establishing the image of the sharks as cold-blooded killers and playing into the hands of those who would wish to slaughter them.

The South African government is aware of the problem, and in August imposed a temporary moratorium on cage diving in the Dyer Island channel. But Ferreira doubts that regulations proposed to control shark tourism will curb the worst excesses. "The authorities will continue to put commercial ventures first," he says.

Author:Andy York
New Scientist magazine, issue 24th October, p.4

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