Why Shark Cage Diving and Eco Tourism is so I...
Posted on Tuesday, 11 September 2018
The news coming out of New Zealand this past week that shark cage diving is to be banned has sent shock waves through the shark community.
Over the past number of years a bitter feud between the Paua divers and the two Great white shark cage diving operators that operate off Stewart Island has existed. Immense pressure and opposition by the Paua diving community to cage diving here has ultimately led to The Court of Appeal in New Zealand ruling that as a Great white shark is a protected species, it may not be disturbed or pursued, and this makes cage diving with great whites illegal.
The Paua divers’ argument is that shark cage diving puts swimmers at risk and changes shark behaviour. A number of studies conducted in South Africa show that shark cage diving activity does not condition sharks and actually has a negative effect as there are few food rewards. If you refer to shark attack data from New Zealand since the advent of shark cage diving in New Zealand in 2007 there have been 13 sharks attacks, only 2 of which have been fatal. None of the shark attacks took place close to Stewart Island. In fact the two previous attacks in the Stewart Island vicinity took place in 1999 and 2003, long before cage diving started in this area.
It’s an emotional argument no matter where you are in the world but my view is that the shark cage diving industry is incredibly important for shark conservation as well as having huge socio-economic benefits.
A shark is a difficult animal to see. In fact if you really want to see one, you need to go to great efforts to do so. The ocean is inaccessible for most people but even so marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals can often be spotted from the shore. The same cannot be said for almost all species of sharks. Even if you took a boat to an area inhabited by sharks you are still not guaranteed to see them. Their world is an underwater one and even if you went scuba diving sharks have an inherently skittish nature and in most cases are likely to avoid you.
At Seal Island in False Bay we are extremely lucky to have opportunities of witnessing breaching and natural predation behaviour and from a distance the great white sharks can be observed without having to attract them.
At all other great white shark locations around the world, the sharks need to be attracted to a vessel in order to see them from the surface as well as to cage dive. If one does not do this, you will simply not see a shark. Quite frankly in a huge proportion of all wildlife viewing circumstances some sort of man-made interference is needed to give people wishing to see wildlife that opportunity. At the end of the day is creating a water hole or fencing in animals in a game reserve on land not essentially doing the same by increasing the chances of seeing the wildlife?
In South Africa our shark cage diving industry is heavily permitted and all 12 operators have to operate according to strict rules and regulations. We are allowed to use a maximum of 25kgs of bait per trip and we may not purposefully feed a shark. Take into consideration one handline fishing vessel will use up 50kgs of bait per fishing trip and you can have hundreds of these vessels fishing far closer to shore than any shark cage diving boat when the fish are running. In comparison the 25kg allocation is just a drop in the ocean.
We may also only operate in certain areas, and these areas as where the sharks naturally occur. So ultimately we are not bringing sharks into an area where they would not normally be, and as we do not purposefully feed the sharks we find the sharks come and go only as they please. In many cases the sharks actually do not even come to the boats as many sharks show little interest in what is being offered to them.
Being able to work with sharks means we can give opportunities to people who would never normally have the means and capacity of seeing a shark up close and in person. Many of our clients are fanatically passionate about sharks and spending time with the sharks only fuels this passion. Other wildlife enthusiasts seeing a shark for the first time leave as fellow shark ambassadors.
We also have many guests come out that are terrified of sharks with their goal being to face their fears. They result is always the same…seeing a shark in its natural environment completely changes their perspective!
Seeing these magnificent animals in person is an incredible experience and an absolute life highlight. And let’s face it … as more people become passionate about sharks the wave to fight for their conservation and survival only gets bigger.
Having operators in shark hotspot areas on a daily basis also serves as a policing presence. Sharks are incredibly vulnerable and susceptible to poaching and a large part of a population can be quickly and easily wiped out.
Ironically it is not the government who protects the sharks, in fact in New Zealand in the tourist hub of Kaikoura, there were white shark teeth for sale, a so called protected species. It was not the efforts of paua divers or even the anti-shark cage diving lobbyists who brought this to the fore , but rather tourist who had been cage diving and were educated.
In South Africa the strongest lobbyists for great white shark protection are in fact the cage dive operators, time and time again it is them that are lobbying for prosecutions or bringing poaching infringements into the limelight, not the government who is actually tasked with doing this.
In New Zealand it was one of the two shark cage diving operators, Peter Scott who fought to get the local cod net fishermen to stop killing great whites around Stewart island, once again not the government or any other group. Quite simply without the presence of those who are passionate or rely on the great whites to make a livelihood there will be nobody to protect these sharks and cod gill netters, paua divers with explosive bang sticks, illegal great white shark trophy fishermen etc etc will have free reign and kill the sharks when and how they please.
Having dived at all the great white shark hot spots around the world the two operators off New Zealand’s Stewart island were probably the lowest impact and in the case of Peter Scott amongst the most caring and protective of the animals they worked with.
From an environmental point of view sharks are vital to the balance of the entire eco system as can be attested by many scientific papers written on the subject. They are thus vital to our survival as well based on the ocean needing a healthy eco system.
My least favourite comment of all time with regards to wildlife is “If it pays, it Stays”. It makes me very frustrated that animals have to prove their worth and have to justify why they should be protected but sadly it is true… unless there is economic value derived from wildlife there is precious little reason for many governments to keep it around in a non-consumptive manner.
In South Africa the shark cage diving industry is said to be worth R1 billion per annum. It supports many spin-offs from transport services, guest houses, restaurants and curio shops to name a few. Many jobs have been created and the demand of people wanting to see sharks only seems to be increasing.
In Western Australia SMART drum lines will be trailed to reduce the risk of shark attacks. This is supposed to be a non-lethal means of dealing with shark/water-user conflict but my question is, if you are going to release the shark after its been caught, what was the point of catching it is in the first place? I would far rather deal with a shark that is unstressed and has not been disturbed in any way than a shark that could possibly be compromised. And will those baited hooks not attract a shark closer in shore and in closer proximity to water users?
Between Australia and New Zealand I am left wondering what on earth our Southern Hemisphere neighbours could possibly be thinking with regards to their shark policies when surely there are better ways to deal with things?
Chris & I have travelled down to New Zealand on a number of occasion over the past 5 years and have found it to be one of the most amazing locations at which to experience Great white sharks. This is an incredible loss to both people and sharks alike.