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April 2007 Vol. 33, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Hawaii Takes a Bite Out of Shark Tours

from the April, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Jimmy Hall’s controversial shark tour company, Hawai’i Shark Encounters, charges $100 per person, and takes passengers of any age and dive experience. Boats leave Oahu’s North Shore daily and cruise three miles out of state water boundaries. The crew loads “victims,” as they’re jokingly called, into cages with Plexiglas windows and as many as 30 sharks come to swim around them. Hall’s website says sharks are drawn to the surface by the sound of the boat engine—but he doesn’t mention that the main attraction is the fish scraps regularly used as chum.

Critics say chumming attracts the predators close to shore, scaring beachgoers and changing sharks’ innate behavior. An advisory panel that oversees fishing in federal waters around Hawai’i approved a proposal last October that would ban shark feeding by commercial tour operators.

Operators like Hall moved three miles out into federal waters when Hawai’i had passed similar measures for state waters after people complained about seeing sharks on the North Shore. But residents got more up in arms when they heard that Hall planned to expand his fleet from four to six boats. Now the fishing advisory panel is considering banning shark feeding in all federal waters from three to 200 miles off Hawai’i, but there is the question whether it has jurisdiction over shark-viewing tourists. One of its senior scientists said it may take “several years” before the council can come up with a recommendation because of the cost and amount of research involved.

Shark expert John Naughton, a marine biologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, doubts sharks follow boats back to shore since they can’t keep up for long at speeds of 20 miles an hour. “They may follow the boats for a while but then they’ll just drift off and go back to their normal haunts,” he told a Hawaii TV news station last summer. Naughton studied Hall’s shark operation and believes it uses no more chum than the average fisherman. He also said sharks are not being conditioned to swim towards land, only to Hall’s boat, and that the increased shark sightings is because there are more sharks and more people in the water to see them.

However, other scientists and fishing industry members warn of tours’ impact on sharks and their habitat. “The animals are going to be affected in the sense that their behavior is going to be changed,” said Robert Hueter, director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Florida. He thinks tours can also cause health hazards because bringing sharks together in abnormal densities could spread pathogens and infections. But he is not opposed to shark diving per se. “As long as tours are well controlled and show concern for the animals, it should help fuel shark conservation.”

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