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October 2000 Vol. 15, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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To Feed or Not to Feed

the dive industry wins round one

from the October, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Despite 30 years of commercial marine-animal feeds across perhaps 40 countries and more than 200 operations, there are plenty of people who want it stopped. At stake is a big industry. Its reported that the 30-odd feeding ops in the Bahamas generated $65 million last year, and that stingray feeds are responsible for half the diving dollars spent in Grand Cayman.

The controversy most recently flared in Florida, where the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) in February voted unanimously to have staff develop a rule to ban fish feeding for a host of reasons. Immediately, moneyed interests in the dive industry PADI, DEMA (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association), and some dive publications got organized to overturn the ruling. Their opponents were a financial cut below them: spearfishing interests and local and national environmental groups.

On September 7, after the FWCC listened to these groups, they ignored their previous ruling and refused to ban fish feeding, urging the sides to work together and come up with a plan for consideration in May. Afterwards an article in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Times called the decision a colossal cop-out or a cave-in to special interests. Regardless, it was certainly a victory for the diving industry.

The Arguments For and Agin

RISK TO HUMANS AND MARINE CREATURES: Pro-feeding groups point out that, with more than a million shark-feed dives, there has yet to be a fatality. Anti-feeding factions say this ignores the divers who have been injured, sometimes seriously, because of feeds. The profeeding side has been disingenuous if not deceptive in its remarks. For example, Richard Finkus, a Florida dive shop owner who has taken hundreds on feeding dives, told the Commission in July that, if done in an organized and responsible manner, these dives are 100 percent safe with no harm to animals, the environment, or to divers or snorkelers. Yet, more than ten years ago Doug Perrine, a marine biologist and photojournalist, reported that many divers feeding fish, or even diving at organized feeding sites, have sustained lacerations of faces, hands, arms, torsos, and even loss of fingers.

... A victory for the
dive industry is
called "a colossal
copout or a cave-in
to special interests."

According to the July, 1998, Shark News 11, published by the Florida Museum of Natural History, more than a dozen injuries have occurred on shark dives in the Bahamas. While impossible to get accurate figures on injuries operations engaged in feeding are vigorous in their damage control there are verifiable incidents.

Jeff Torode, co-owner of South Florida Diving Headquarters and a proponent of feeding, sustained a serious hand injury while feeding eels. A Boca Raton man diving near a feeding area, but not himself feeding, had a large moray bite him on the leg. After a supervised grouper feed at Walkers Cay, a regularly fed barracuda bit a divers fingers as he made the sign for shark, requiring 15 stitches. And, in an item that speaks to molestation of human and marine creature alike, the September Skin Diver contains an interview with Key Largos Spencer Slate. When asked his craziest stunt, he replied: The time Perry, the moray eel, bit me. I was so mad that I punched him in the nose. He responded by biting me again, only this time caused 17 stitches worth of hurt, and it was caught on tape. Slate admits to being bitten over 50 times across the span of his feedings, but jokes that: We always sell more video tapes of the dive on days I get bit.

An indeterminate number of divers in the Bahamas have been injured during shark feeds, including a German woman who was bitten on the head at a shark feeding site on a non-feeding day. More than a dozen attacks on feeders in the Bahamas have occurred, including a DM who was seriously bitten on the arm and leg. In the Maldives an operator who feeds by hand and mouth has been bitten four times by sharks, once so severely he was evacuated to the U.S. for treatment.

While there has been no documented fatality, George Burgess, a noted University of Florida shark researcher, has opined, Sooner or later, some tourist will suffer a very serious injury or die during one of these operations. Its not a matter of conjecture. It will happen. Its just a matter of time.

While most feeding is unregulated, in many locations its restricted or prohibited, including the Egyptian coasts of the Red Sea, many locations in Hawaii, and several National Marine Sanctuaries. In the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, shark feeding is prohibited. Fish feeding is allowed, but only under permit and tight restriction.

ALTERATION OF LONG-TERM BEHAVIOR: The pro-feeding camp contends that marine animals are opportunistic feeders, and the small amount of food offered does not foster dependency. But they offer no evidence.

The other side has some science. In a paper to the FWCC, Dr. William Alevizon, scientific advisor to Florida-based Reef Relief, comments that land-dwelling opportunistic predators such as bears and marine counterparts such as dolphins, conditioned by regular feeding, lose their natural wariness of humans and become aggressive toward them. Bear feeds have long been banned in national parks, and dolphin feeds have been banned by the National Marine Fisheries Service for this and the additional reason that fed dolphins eventually stop discriminating safe from unsafe feed sources. Thats why they get trapped in shrimp trawling nets. Dr. Alevizon suggests that piscine opportunistic feeders, like sharks, might react similarly.

Of course, any diver knows that when sharks congregate at the sound of boats approaching, or grouper and barracuda closely approach when a BC pocket is opened or hand extended, or eels leave hiding places to greet you, they are not behaving as fish unaffected by humans. Its not natural.

IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT: Anti-feed factions say that the unnatural aggregation of sharks or large predators in a small area will eventually reduce stocks of nearby fish in the creatures food chain. More aggressive species have been observed dominating and reducing populations of less aggressive fishes in feeding areas.

Feed proponents say these feeds allow divers to become educated about creatures such as sharks, thereby increasing appreciation and promoting protection. Anti-feed people argue that divers already appreciate sea creatures, and any boost they get from feeding them is inconsequential.

The Raw Politics

The scuba industry has been remarkably successful in preventing and resisting federal and state regulation. It fights to maintain the status quo, no matter how small potential breaches may appear. For this Florida fight, PADI retained an attorney-lobbyist to orchestrate the pro-feeding campaign. Many people expect PADI to assist in a formal legal challenge if given an unfavorable future FWCC ruling.

PADIs position is viewed by some as an abrogation of the responsibilities implied by Project AWARE, advertised as the dive industrys leading nonprofit organization operating on behalf of the aquatic environment and its resources, and particularly its international public awareness campaign, Protect the Sharks.

In July, Scuba Divings editor David Taylor promoted a profeeding position in his magazine. They also had an online mechanism for petitioning the FWCC, which offered only the chance to express disagreement with regulation.

... the pro-feeding
coalition will focus
on making feeds
maximally safe for
divers, marine
creatures, and the
environment.
- John Stewart, DEMA

The Florida-based Scuba Radio sponsored a luxury bus, replete with free food, beverages, and prizes, that took divers to the September FWCC hearing because ... what the commission needs to hear is your personal experience with this type of diving and your objections to the proposed ban.

One of the more interesting events involved Dr. Russell Nelson, head of the Florida Division of Fisheries. On July 7, Dr. Nelson presented comments that concluded: Staff does not recommend regulatory action at this time. Instead, they recommended forming a working group of interested constituencies to develop voluntary controls. A few days later, the Sun-Sentinel reported that, by his own admission, Dr. Nelson had visited pornographic websites on his state computer and on state time. Dr. Nelson resigned, but did not remain unemployed for long. In September, he released a report for DEMA concluding that total prohibition of feeds by the FWCC was not warranted, and, if regulatory approaches are deemed necessary, the FWCC should look to .... the voluntary adoption of industry standards and specifically the use of special management areas and public information and education efforts.

Of course, the pro-ban side is not without its strange bedfellows. Florida spearfishing interests have been a major impetus for a state shark-feeding ban. Concerned about increasing aggressiveness of sharks toward spearfishers, some of their members have made outrageous statements to influence the commission, even conjuring up an association between shark finning and shark feeds. Some people believe that the strident position of at least one spearfisherman, Stephen Picardi, webmaster of the Ban Shark Feeding website, has not helped his side.

The Outcome

The FWCC met in a grueling day-long session on September 7 to hear massive testimony of widelyvarying quality. After considering the input, it suspended any further consideration until May 2001, thereby maintaining the status quo. Meanwhile, the Commission recommended that all factions work together to arrive at methods of feeding that minimally impact the environment. In short, the profeeding side prevailed.

The day following the vote, John Stewart, in charge of marketing for DEMA, told Undercurrent that the pro-feeding coalition has every intention of launching a work group that will be inclusionary, not exclusionary. He indicated that the deliberations will be entirely public and hoped to have recommendations to the FWCC by next April. He indicated they will focus on making feeds maximally safe for divers, marine creatures, and the environment.

A spokesperson for the losing side was less enthusiastic, telling Undercurrent: Its a real disappointment to see the body responsible for protecting Floridas marine life respond in the way they did to the kind of dog-and-pony show orchestrated by the dive industry. Its a sad but true commentary in our democracy that those with the greatest financial resources and expertise at manipulating the political system usually get their way.

As to the various factions working together cooperatively, there is basis for skepticism given the track record. So far, we as divers and stewards of an embarrassment of marine riches have not acquitted ourselves well in addressing this topic. Looking at what has transpired thus far, the welfare of the marine animals at the center of this controversy seems a footnote.

Those who have something of substance to contribute may email the Executive Director of the FWCC, Dr. Alan Egbert, at gfcmail@gfc.state.fl.us. DEMA (John Stewart, john@divemarketing.com) and Reef Relief (reef@bellsouth.net) are also appropriate contacts.

- Ben Davison

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