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March 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Please Don’t Feed the Fish

why would anyone think Cheez Whiz is good for them?

from the March, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Last month, we talked about dive operations that encourage petting, even manhandling, of marine life. Feeding fish can be another problem. Doing it improperly can have a long-term effect on their health and behavior. Furthermore, it turns the natural ocean into a zoo orchestrated by divers. We received scores of comments from our readers, serious divers, about the results of fish feeding, and most of them were negative.

When fish are used to being fed, they may start getting aggressive, nipping at divers at the very least. Grand Cayman’s Stingray City, where critters are fed regularly, is a notorious center for bites, including serious injuries and severed fingers. Two years ago, an 11-year-old boy from Wisconsin snorkeling there was bitten by an eel on the hand. Doctors spent six hours restoring blood flow to his hand by using a vein from his leg.

And getting caught in a shark feed is not some divers’ idea of fun. Subscriber Mary Wicksten (Bryan, TX) was diving with Stuart’s Cove in Nassau last year when divers on her boat were warned not to dive on the boat’s right-hand side because that’s where a shark-feeding boat was anchoring. But then that boat moved to a buoy on the left, almost on top of her as she was diving. “I was not a happy camper when they dropped a chum ball directly on top of me. What fun--seeing a feeding frenzy from below. It’s a good thing that I am an experienced diver and crawled along the bottom back to my boat, which was flying a diver’s flag. A beginner diver would have freaked out.”

“Divers Aren’t Content to See Just One of a Species”

What is it about feeding fish that fascinates us? Why are we willing to feed fish in marine sanctuaries but bird watchers, our recreational cousins on land, would never consider doing such a thing? They are content to see one bird in its natural setting – a single unique hummingbird can make a birder’s day. But few divers are content with seeing just one of a species. We have to be surrounded by them. Dive operations, knowing this, heavily advertise shark-feeding tours and regularly throw chum to fish. Some marine parks, like Hol Chan in Belize’s Ambergris Caye, either have no rules about it or are willing to let them slide.

Some dive operators argue that fish feeding can be done without causing harm. One of them is Dee Scarr, owner of Touch the Sea in Bonaire (we described her methods of touching marine life in the last issue). In her opinion, feeding can be done in ways that show respect to the animals and teach divers about their behavior. She takes small morsels of food, like Indonesian freshwater shrimp for scorpionfish, which is less environmentally hazardous than farmraised shrimp and lacks the strong fishy scents that attract sharks. “This fish doesn’t move very fast but if food is within four inches of his mouth, he gobbles it up a nanosecond. It gives people a better idea of this fish’s behavior and how it is an amazing predator.”

“The Sharks, Being Fed, Naturally Wanted More”

If only other dive operators could feed fish as delicately. Unfortunately, the terms “food fight” and “feeding frenzy” typically apply, sometimes to the hazard of the fish – and divers. While diving in Tahiti, subscriber Joe Murray (Boise, ID) saw a green moray swallow the complete mesh bag of bread, plus the weight belt it was attached to. “Fortunately it was able to spit everything out, including the belt.” An enormous and very famous potato cod on the Great Barrier Reef did something similar, regurgitating back the hard-boiled eggs divers fed it.

While diving on the Nekton Pilot in the Bahamas, John S. Wilson (Denver, CO) says a group of daytripping divers on a shark-feeding trip were brought to the liveaboard’s dive location. The divers were seated in a circle on the ocean floor, then the divemaster would bring his bag o’ treats to feed the sharks. “The divemaster was wearing something resembling chain mail,” says Wilson. “The group went back to the boat, leaving us alone with the sharks, who, having just been fed naturally wanted more. Several divers were butted by sharks, so we aborted the rest of our dive.”

Even more docile fish have gotten aggressive. There have been increased reports of snorkelers being bitten on their arms in the Hawaiian islands, but the biters are habitually non-aggressive grazers like damselfish and chubs. That’s because they’ve become habituated to commercial fish food sold by dive shops, and even human food like frozen peas and Cheez Whiz people bring to feed fish. Besides causing aggressiveness, the food also reduces grazers’ desire to eat off the reefs’ algae and seaweed, affecting the ecosystem.

Last year, the Coral Reef Alliance started its “Take a Bite Out of Fish Feeding” campaign by asking Hawaii dive shops and charter boats not to sell fish food and educating beachgoers about letting fish feed themselves. Rick MacPherson, the Alliance’s program director for the campaign, says 30 businesses have signed on although there are still some holdouts. “Some were early adopters once we showed what we wanted to do. Others said, ‘Well, it’s done in Great Barrier Reef so why can’t we do it here,’ or that data is inconclusive about impact on the reef. I suspect they’re most worried about the effect it has on the bottom line.” To lessen the impact, the campaign persuades snorkelers with fish food to dump it in exchange for coupons to buy items at a discount from cooperating dive shops. “We substitute the food for other items like fish ID cards that still create revenue,” says MacPherson.

“For One Diver Who Complains, There Are Another 100 Who Don’t”

In marine parks with strict rules, fish are thriving. Lynn Costenaro, co-owner of Sea Saba, says the rules also make fish friendlier to divers. “Our customers are so surprised when fish come to them, that they’re not afraid. That’s because of the no-touch policy. They feed fish elsewhere because that’s the only way to get to see fish. But because there’s no overfishing or riding of turtles and sharks here, there’s no need for using food to get close to marine life.” She does admit that success is due to the fact that Saba is a small island. Our marine park is five square miles instead of 500 miles, so we can do self-policing and park rangers aren’t overextended. We’re not dealing with mass tourism like Cayman or Cozumel.”

But it would be disgraceful if those popular dive sites just became known as petting zoos where fish must be baited with chum. During training, PADI cites environmental issues, advocating that divers not upset marine life. But besides the Coral Reef Alliance, there’s no other dive organization evaluating the effects of human interaction on marine life behavior. And no agency prohibits it.

At dive agency SDI/TDI, marketing director Steve Lewis says it has no plan in place because the different countries it operates in have different regulations about marine interaction. “There are dive operations that teach our programs and also have shark-feeding dives, and others that use divers almost as bait, like shark cage dives in South Africa. So for us to turn around as a pompous American dive agency and dictate what countries should do or not do is a stance we refuse to take.

“Most, if not all, of our instructors don’t spearfish or dive to collect specimens. We tend to follow guidelines to only take photos and leave no footprints. But we respect the right of an individual to conform to the local rules and regulations, and enjoy their diving.”

Undercurrent called the other dive agencies PADI and NAUI, as well as the dive industry’s lobbying group, Dive Equipment Manufacturers Association, to get their opinion but they did not return calls. While everyone professes to be keenly interested in the fate of the oceans, they are curiously silent when it comes to regulating the effect divers may have.

Wayne Hasson, president of the Aggressor liveaboard fleet, sees no reason to change, even though crew on his boats are instructed to tell divers look but not touch. “I don’t see the big deal about things like feeding nurse sharks because you don’t know if these fish have a brain. Obviously they don’t mind, or else why would they go back to the same place? For the few people who bitch and moan about someone touching the animals, there are 100 more who go diving to see, feel and interact with the fish.”

That’s disheartening for an industry relying on a living ocean to make money. Feeding fish in the short-term may make them come running for food, but in the long run, those actions will change their behavior, make them less likely to follow their natural predator ways, and ultimately affect the balance of their ecosystem. When fish eat peas and Cheez Whiz instead of reef-destroying algae like they’re supposed to, that’s bad for the environment – and bad for divers wanting to get a close-up view of marine life in its most glorious natural state.

“By nature, diving should be an observational sport,” says Leda Cunningham, executive director of the nonprofit Reef Environmental Education Foundation. “The fact that no diving organization has a policy is significant because it shows there’s a real lack of understanding about how much divers’ interaction with marine life affects the animals.”

- - Vanessa Richardson

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