Shark Feeding, is it a Good Practice?

Shark Feeding Photo by Sebastien Filion / Stuart Cove's

Even as the media’s feeding frenzy over sharks and the Discovery’s channel shark week are subsiding the question of shark feeding is on the table again in the United States. Shark feeding is one of the most polarizing topic in the dive industry. Many divers are dead set against it while others are fully for it. It is also one of the fastest growing segment of the dive industry.

Senator Bill Nelson has introduced into the US Senate a bill S.3099 – Access for Sportfishing Act of 2016. Within that bill is an amendment to the SHARK CONSERVATION ACT OF 2010. The amendment would make it illegal to engage in shark feeding or to operate a vessel for the purpose of carrying a passenger for hire to any site to engage in shark feeding or to observe shark feeding. According to the amendment ‘shark feeding’ means the introduction of food or any other substance into the water to feed or attract sharks for any purpose other than to harvest sharks.

Senator Nelson is from the State of Florida which already has a ban on shark feeding within the waters of the state. The state law prohibits the act, however, they can only make laws that concerning state waters which only extends 3 miles from shore. Florida dive operators conducting shark feeding currently travel outside the states waters for their dives and some continue into Bahamian waters to dive at some of the renown sites in their waters. If this bill becomes law it will not allow those dives. It will also stop shark feeding dives of the coast of California and other US locations.

Good or is it More Good than Bad.

There are many points that are raised on both sides of the argument. One of the strongest talking points on the positive side is that it provides a positive conservation message. Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas has stated in the past that their shark dive program shows over 50,000 divers a year that the man eating myths about sharks are untrue and that sharks need our support and protection. The Pew Charitable Trusts is one of the largest trust in the world. Their Global Shark Conservation Campaign has helped a number of developing countries establish conservation measures to protect marine resources including sharks. Rick MacPherson, a senior adviser to the trust and a marine ecologist, has stated that shark feeding dives have been instrumental in creating a positive image of sharks. It also provides an alternative income that would be lost when sharks are not harvested in the wild.

Decreasing shark populations mean that divers are less likely to observe sharks on an average dive. The practice of attracting sharks with feed improves the likelihood that a diver will encounter sharks on a dive. From the tourism viewpoint, having shark feeding dive will help lure vacation divers to a dive destination if seeing sharks is on the divers want to do list.

Shark feeding is dangerous. photograph by IamNotUnique

Shark Feeding is Bad

The opposite view is that feeding sharks causes them to equate divers with food. This will cause the shark to change their feeding habits and rely on divers instead. They further state that the limited amount of food the divers provide will create aggression between the sharks as they fight for the scrapes. It is felt by some that this practice places others in danger as well as the divers involved directly. Sharks see humans as a provider of food, so when a diver shows up, the sharks will come seeking food. If there is no food they become aggressive.

The International Shark Attack File keeps track of shark attacks world wide. In their process, they classify shark attacks as provoked or non-provoked attacks. Non-provoked Shark attacks on scuba divers are very low. In fact they may happen many years apart. However, spear fishing and shark feeding are classified as provoked attacks and they happen much more frequently.

One of the strongest points here is that divers often forget that these sharks are wild animals. While the repetitive feeding may make them seem domicile they can change behaviors very rapidly. You will see divers reaching out and petting a shark as it goes by.

Other Factors

George H. Burgess of the Florida Museum of Natural History, USA published an article on the topic of shark feeding in July 1998. At that time shark feeding dives were still uncommon with only a few dive operators doing it. The article Diving with Elasmobranchs: A Call for Restraint highlight many of the concerns that are still being discussed today. If you are thinking of doing a shark feeding dive, you should read the article first. The article is well balanced and focuses on four interrelated factors: the safety of the divers; the likelihood for negative publicity directed at sharks if a shark bites a diver during one of these dives; the possibility for ecological disruption; and potential negative impact on multi-user recreational use of the feeding area. It also points out what is a responsible program. Dr Burgess is the Director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and International Shark Attack File Web Editor.

Where Do You Stand?

I have encountered sharks on many dives but have never been on a shark feeding dive. I am not interested in shark feeding, however, I do feel that when done properly it can be a positive activity. In my view, dive boats that chums, that is spreading fish parts and blood on the surface, are creating a unsafe environment. However, properly trained and protected dive leaders using a frozen chum ball or hand feeding small amounts of fish can establish a low risk environment. As many divers are not as fortunate as I have been to encounter sharks, a shark feed may be the only way they might encounter these fabulous creatures.

Too many people have an image that sharks are dangerous, when in fact deaths by sharks are very rare. The risk of death by sharks is very low. You are 11 times more likely to be killed by fireworks than a shark, and 75 time more likely to be killed by lighting.

So what is your view of shark feeding? If you have done a dive that included shark feeding how was it?

View Comments

  • Any familiarization of humans and food is a recipe for disaster. Most especially when "you" feed in and around reefs. These beautiful creatures are 110% predator, not a guppy in a fish tank. Once their pea-brain associates a human with free food the danger increases exponentially. Want to feed the fish? Get a fish tank. I have had to find coral, big enough to hide behind, to avoid bullsharks, makos and hammerheads. Be smart. Be safe. Don't become chum.

  • Every action creates (has) a reaction, some good, some bad. Those that feed sharks get the reaction they want, an adrenaline rush. Those folks taking the shark feeders out to sea get what they want, money. A win, win for those two groups. Now is the practice a win for the sharks. Absolutely not! There is not one long term true positive benefit for the sharks survival. Over time the loser is the shark being an instinctual creature of the sea.

  • An important point left off the article is that chumming/feeding to "harvest: sharks is not banned. In other words, it's ok to chum to kill threatened/endangered sharks but not to view, photograph or learn about them (that would apply even if a diver did not get in the water). That does seem to be not very environmentally friendly. Along with that is some science that sheds light on the situation - http://www.miami.edu/index.php/features/ecotourism_study/

    And one has to wonder why if the science and economics don't line up with this bill, what is the driver - humm, guess the shark fishermen will like the outcome if it is passed. Next thing to look at is the origins of donations to the sponsoring senators.

  • I have spent the last two years visiting some of the most popular shark diving spots in Hawaii, Florida and the Bahamas/Caribbean including many trips to Tiger Beach. I have visited these sites with tour groups and then often in our own boat to get some idea of how the animals respond under different circumstances like scuba vs free diving and feeding vs non feeding. My experiences have always been the same. The sharks will approach the boat expecting food, if food isn't forth coming the sharks leave or go back to cruising the reef. I have never been harassed by a shark when I didn't have food but as soon as I feed a shark they single me out as the feeder and will always come back to me whilst ignoring other people in the water. A important thing to note is that at most sites only a small number of individuals actually get anything, the less dominant sharks don't get a look in and the quantity of food is usually not enough to satiate the animal. Based on these observations I really don't believe that sharks are habituated enough to ever rely on humans for food and they certainly don't harass random humans for food. The positives achieved for shark conservation far outweigh any negative issues and the idea that one should be able to chum to kill a shark but not to be able to get in the water with it is ludicrous.