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April 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 26, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sharks Under Siege: Part I

the connection between shark feeding and shark attacks

from the April, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In January, sharks attacked three Russians and a Ukranian swimming at the Egyptian resort area of Sharm el- Sheikh in just two days. It was high season, and the media attention was massive. The local governor closed the beaches for 48 hours, authorities killed two sharks, and beaches were re-opened. But within 24 hours, a German woman standing chest-deep in the water was killed by another shark. Over six more days, five swimmers were attacked by sharks. At least six of those nine incidents are believed to have involved the solitary oceanic whitetip, a species that doesn't usually rank among the top killers.

What made the sharks so aggressive? There was a confirmed sighting of dead sheep illegally jettisoned from a cargo vessel passing through the area a month before the attacks, which could have drawn sharks from far away. The Red Sea is also well known for illegal dumping, fish feeding and overfishing. Red Sea dive operators often flout a nofeeding law by dumping leftovers aboard and having divemasters offer morsels to sharks lure them closer.

Three American scientists flew to Sharm el-Sheikh in January to find answers for the spate of shark attacks. They determined that two of the attacks, including the fatality, were by one oceanic whitetip shark, and two others by a mako shark. Another attack is considered to be another oceanic whitetip, but not conclusive. When the scientists looked at photos of the shark-bite victims, they saw that the two attacks charged to one oceanic whitetip had a couple of things in common - - the victims had their hands bit off, and a large chunk of their buttocks was bitten deep.

Then someone brought them a video clip of divers finning at 20 feet at Five Mile Reef. Ralph S. Collier, president of the Shark Research Committee and one of the three American researchers, explains what they saw: "One diver away from the group, probably the divemaster, had his arm extended. He was holding a fish. As the shark approached, the diver let loose of the fish. The shark chomped down on the bait and started circling the diver. With his right hand, the diver reached behind him. On his butt was a fanny pack, from which he pulled another dead fish. The shark knew where the fish was, because he could smell it, so he reached for this area. Now we could see why it did what it did. One of the Red Sea shark victims was a female diver. When the shark swam to her, she extended her hand to ward off the shark. But the shark bit her hand, then swam behind her and took a massive bite out of her butt, so much that the spinal column was visible.

"So we're looking at a shark habituated to human beings for getting food, and humans had taught the shark where the food was. And this occurred frequently in the Red Sea. With overfishing in the area, sharks have to come up to the reef area to feed, and now associate food with the human form. It's very much like training your family dog. When it sees your hand, it sits up to get a bite of that treat."

The scientists' recommendation was to kill that shark (along with the video, a photo of the same shark at another attack site marked it as the culprit). "Unfortunately, you can't untrain the shark, so you have to catch and kill it," says Collier. "And stop feeding reef fish, because their agitated signals when food comes are picked up by sharks."Red Sea authorities said they will now energetically enforce the no-feeding law, and any diver caught feeding a shark gets a fine of up to US$10,000.

Sharks are beautiful, and watching them up close is amazing, as this YouTube video (www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=WK2LpUoqX6A&vq=medium) of them surrounding shark researcher Cristina Zenato shows. But watch the video and you'll see close-ups of Zenato feeding the sharks dead fish by hand (albeit wearing chain mail gloves). After all, how else is the film crew going to get these solitary creatures that close to the camera?

" We're looking at a shark habituated
to human beings for getting food, and
humans had taught the shark where
the food was."

In the last few years, we've questioned the safety of shark dive when the crew chums the waters or put fish in a bait box to attract sharks to divers. Jim Abernethy, a prominent shark dive operator who takes customers to the Bahamas, has responded that his shark dives are a way to show customers the beauty of these big creatures, and why they should be protected. In 2009, Abernethy told Undercurrent that he believes sharks are not inherently dangerous, and compares them to birds. "Feeding the birds is an opportunity for people to get close to these animals so they can see them . . . Birdwatchers feed birds but every now and then, a bird will bite a person as a mistake." On January 25, Abernethy got bitten on the arm by a reef shark during one of his Bahamas dives. Despite bleeding profusely, he made it to the hospital and after a few stitches, he announced he would be back in the water a few days later.

Abernethy has many notable defenders. Peter Brueggeman, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has been on an Abernethy trip and says, "Jim is not offering near daily shark dives, as are Stuart Cove and others. He is on station feeding sharks, how many days per year? Wouldn't Jim's food presentation be then pretty random to a shark's point of view? The sharks are in the general area, but Jim's not running a seal rookery with daily food on offer to predators."

Peter Knights is executive director of WildAid, a nonprofit for ending illegal wildlife trade, and has dived with Abernethy eight times. "I've never been on a dive with chumming, which puts fish blood in the water. [Abernethy] puts bait in a suspended crate, which leaves a trail of oil, not blood, so it's better than chumming. The argument that sharks associate boats with food is silly, because fishing boat throws bits of dead fish off the back, and that industry puts more fish back that way than all dive boats combined." He sees dive trips like Abernethy's as a good method for "shark tourism.' "You get people inspired and understand that sharks are not killing machines but wild animals that are sometimes unpredictable and will attack if they're confused or scared. But humans are not on their list. And if sharks get used to having people in the water, they'll realize what humans are - - not food and not a threat."

George Burgess disagrees. He is the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and director of the International Shark Attack File, and one of the three scientists who investigated the Red Sea shark attacks. He doesn't see a difference between chumming and feeding. Sharks react primarily to olfactory signals, whether it's scent or chum. He cites the case of Markus Groh, an Austrian diver who died from a fatal shark bite on one of Abernethy's dives (see our article "Death of a Diver" in the April 2008 issue). The chum bag was said to have been grabbed by the shark, so it doesn't matter whether it's called chum, a chumbag or food - - the animals go after it," he told DIVER, the British magazine. "It's the equivalent of going to Africa, where a pride of lions are hanging out under a tree, and dumping a bunch of T-bone steaks on the ground. That would be called dumb if you did it with lions, alligators or bears, so why do we think we can do it with the largest and most efficient predators in the ocean?"

Burgess also says the dive industry does its best to keep these incidents quiet. "Most of the cases we have on the International Shark Attack File are leaked to us. These operations are out there to make money. That's not a sin. They're trying to offer something one step above the average diving for people looking for thrills and the unusual. I suspect that a lot of the clients who come to these things are less naturalist-divers than people who want to be entertained. Judging by what I see on TV and celebrities who have done this thing, it's a notch of courage, or something to crow about."

The education part of shark tourism gets trumped every time there's an attack, says Burgess. The Austrian diver killed by a shark in 2008 on a Jim Abernethy dive boat "probably equates to 10 years of education effort. When that happened, I got hundreds of calls and emails from people questioning whether they should go to the Bahamas. The economic ramifications of these incidents can be huge in terms of the negative effect on tourism."

- - Vanessa Richardson

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