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July 2001 Vol. 16, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Pavlov's Shark

from the July, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In June 1996 at a popular fish-feeding site on the Great Barrier Reef, a 21-year-old female had her left arm shredded and subsequently amputated because of an unprovoked attack by a 6-foot moray eel. In the same area, a large potato cod seized a snorkeler by the head. The snorkeler drowned.

Entertainment for scuba divers by fish feeding is big business. In South Australia and South Africa, groups of divers experience thrilling encounters with the great white shark, which can be observed from the relative safety of an underwater cage lowered from the boat. An appetizing cocktail of blood, fish oil and raw meat entices these huge carnivores to approach the divers. At some South Pacific dive destinations, feeding reef sharks follows similar lines.

With this experience, sharks lose their natural caution and could be conditioned to associate humans with food. Altered behavior and movement patterns such as “downstream circling” have been observed in great white sharks. Researchers using ultrasonic tracking devices found that following the cessation of chumming the sharks crisscrossed for several miles downstream of the baiting station for up to twelve hours, apparently searching for food.

It may be argued that there is some “public relations,” and scientific advantage in observing sharks at close quarters to understand their behavior. However, this must be balanced against the risks of producing familiarity. According to the International Shark Attack file, the number of great white attacks has increased steadily worldwide over the past few decades.

The increasing practice of feeding marine animals should be seriously examined on the basis of potential injury to both humans and animals. The lessons of Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s rats appear to have been completely forgotten.

— Bill Douglas
South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal, March 2001.

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