Shark Science Monday: Aleks Maljkovic discusses whether shark feeding dives harm sharks

If you have any questions for me or the subject of this month’s interview, please leave them as comments below and one of us will get back to you.

~WhySharksMatter

16 comments

  1. Rick MacPherson · September 20, 2010

    nice interview, david! i particularly appreciate ms maljkovic’s cautious approach and caveats in interpreting her data… kudos on the warning of the dangers of extrapolating too broadly from one study in one location…

    i’m not a deeply entrenched anti-shark feeding dive advocate, so i appreciate the opportunity to re-examine my position… i have my personal and professional distaste of the practice based on numerous experiences of shark feeding dive operations that are purely a profit machine with little to no regard for the sharks, diver safety, or ecosystem impacts… introducing atypical prey items to sharks (pig blood, chickens, etc), manipulating the feeding environment (picnic benches on reefs!) to disastrous effects to local habitats, and showboating for impressive photo ops (holding prey items in ones mouth for sharks to eat) really aren’t helping make the case for shark feeding dives as “ecotourism”…

    but i appreciate your highlighting a real attempt to collect empirical evidence as to any impacts…

    one premise i would argue, however, is the statement that, “Most divers will never really get to see sharks.” my experience is that in well managed MPAs throughout the caribbean, pacific, and indian ocean, sharks are common sigtings… true, they are depleted, but still not uncommon… if we accept that as first principle divers will not see sharks, then it seems we are throwing our hands up at trying to do something about that, ie put management strategies into effect…

    • Southern Fried Scientist · September 20, 2010

      In 200+ dives, I have yet to be on any dive where I didn’t see at least one shark (not counting freshwater dives or research dives where the visibility was less than 3 inches).

    • WhySharksMatter · September 20, 2010

      There’s a difference between seeing a shark in the distance for ten seconds before it swims away and the close encounters you can get with feeding. I don’t know what most of your shark encounters were like, but that’s what many of mine were.

    • Rick MacPherson · September 20, 2010

      if you define “encounters with sharks” as the result of what you see on a shark feeding dive, then i suspect you are already starting with a biased perspective of what shark encounters are like… i’ve had vague, distant encounters with sharks in the caribbean and pacific as well as 1 meter encounters with white tips along the MAR, 2 meter encounters with gray reef and hammerhead sharks in fiji, 3 meter encounters with tiger sharks in png… it’s all a roll of the dice…

      my main point i guess is that if all you know of shark encounters are the contrived settings of a feeding dive, then you really are NOT seeing a marine ecosystem at its own terms…

      not every adventure to the african savannah is the great circle of life played out on mutual of omaha’s wild kingdom… same goes for marine settings…

    • J. Speaks · September 21, 2010

      Honestly, how many “well-managed” MPAs are out there right now? MPAs in general are still not a complete idea, and well-managed ones probably make up a small percentage of the total. Sure if you’re visiting nothing but well-managed MPAs you’ll have a greater chance of seeing sharks, but that’s not always the case. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some nice places, and I don’t always see sharks. I spent 4 months snorkeling and diving in Hawaii and never saw a shark (although I did get up close and personal with several large mantas!). I just recently got back from a week-long research trip to the Dry Tortugas, where Nurse sharks are supposed to be quite common, and never saw one (did get to see a mammoth southern stingray, though). On the flip-side, I do a lot of research in St. Joseph’s Bay, Florida, and I’m almost guaranteed to see bonnetheads or blacktips on every trip. I’ve been wreck diving off the coast of NC and found myself surrounded by a dozen Sandtigers. So as you say, it’s a roll of the dice, but I would say the dice are stacked against shark sightings more often than not. I suppose if you know, historically, where the sharks go then you increase your chances. Otherwise it’s just luck.

      To stay on topic I’ll put in a few words on this blog. I do appreciate the approach from both side of the argument in this interview, as I usually only hear the case against it. I think it certainly has its benefits with regard to education of the public and conservation, as well as science. Having relatively large numbers of sharks in one area can allow for siginificant study of the animals, which Ms. Maljkovic is addressing as we speak. On the flip-side I can see how conditioning these animals to respond with feeding behavior around divers becomes an issue. I’m quite conflicted because I would really enjoy the opportunity to be surrounded by that many sharks, but with the same token it’s not at all natural, and you’re not experiencing life as it was intended to be experienced.

      Great interview, David! I look forward to more of Shark Science Mondays.

    • Rick MacPherson · September 21, 2010

      if well-managed mpas:
      1) create opportunities to see sharks without manipulating the environment; and,
      2) protect sharks from exploitation/harvest; and,
      3) people like to see sharks while diving; and,
      4) people are willing to pay to both dive with sharks and see some of that payment go towards the continued management of the mpa; and,
      5) more destinations around the world see this success and take steps to manage their mpas and shark populations; then,
      6) it’s a win-win

    • J. Speaks · September 21, 2010

      I totally agree! My point wasn’t so much that well-managed MPAs don’t work, because I believe they are an invaluable tool for conservation of marine life. Well-managed MPAs are rare, but generally effective, and I agree that they should set an example for other poorly managed sites, or future sites for MPAs. Unfortunately MPAs will never provide enough protection against shark harvest because most of the species targeted are crusorial and predominantly pelagic, caught beyond any feasible boundaries that a protected area can set up.

      As for seeing these animals in a natural environment, I again completely agree. But think about all the regular Joe Schmoes out there who get their dive certifications simply because they want to see sharks. If you polled them, what percentage would want to see those sharks just swimming merrily by, as opposed to seeing them chomp on a big hunk of bait? Most (casual) divers are thrill seekers, and there is no bigger thrill than having a shark tear up a piece of fish six inches from your face. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying that’s how people think. Most of the people who visit this blog are probably marine scientists or at least somewhat interested in the field, and understand the issues from an ecological perspective. Most Joe Schmoes don’t. But if the dive charters taking them out on these trips have any respect for the animals, then they’re hopefully educating those divers on these issues and the plight of worldwide shark populations.

      So until there are enough well-managed MPAs out there that people can start leaning away from feedings, and start seeing sharks on a regular basis in their natural state, I feel it’s a viable option for divers. I do hope that day will come, but it’s not coming any time soon.

    • J. Speaks · September 23, 2010

      That’s excellent! I’m really glad to see a big push like this. I knew Palau was quite the trailblazer with their Shark Sanctuary last year, but this is an unexpected and awesome developement. The issue of harvesting the animals will still not be cured by this, but I think it will make locations to see sharks without artificial influence a bit easier. Regardless, the future of sharks is already looking a little brighter.

  2. Mariah Boyle · September 20, 2010

    Great interview! Honestly I love sharks and do enjoy seeing them on feeding dives, so I’m glad to hear the evidence isn’t totally against the practice. I dove in Fiji’s Beqa Lagoon (bull and tiger sharks) and really was impressed with the science that was being done at the site, along with the safety of the operation. I won’t go again to see those sharks, I figure once is enough to really appreciate them and to take the safety risk, but I would love to see great whites on a dive too. This is a topic we need to learn more about as eco-tourism becomes more mainstream – thanks for conducting such important research and sharing it with shark fans!

  3. Claire Allen · September 21, 2010

    Really informative interview. I can understand the arguments from both sides and these studies help us to re evaluate our opinions. I love sharks and watching programs on them. I am in KwaZulu Natal South Africa and we have the Natal Sharks Board here which is well known.

    I think that studies need to be done (if not on the go already) on the effects of feeding the larger sharks. The Great Whites, Tigers and Zambezi sharks. These are some of the species that people are worried about and give rise to the questions about safety.

    Thank you again for this informative clip.

  4. Louise Holst Hemmingsen · September 21, 2010

    I think one of the great things about shark-encounters is that they are not a common sight – which makes the experience more precious. In places like Shark Ray Alley in Belize, where the local fishermen used to feed the sharks and other fish with leftovers, visitors are encouraged to come and pet the sharks. I find that just a bit distasteful.

    I have also heard about the way the great whites are attracted in SA. Using neoprene-seals, which the sharks attacks with full strength. That is also a bit controversial, as the material is the same covering the divers just beside them..

    Looking forward to hearing more, next Monday!

  5. Austin Gallagher · September 21, 2010

    great job David and Aleks! great summary of a very hot and controversial topic.

  6. Ivan van Heerden · September 22, 2010

    I would rather bring people to see sharks during a feeding, than to take them to the Natal Sharks Board who have killed over 50 000 sharks in the last 30 years alone and who still claim to be a conservation agency.

    Feeding when done properly and with careful safety considerations has done more to change people’s perception about sharks then any single effort previously.

  7. Gudufl · September 22, 2010

    Please consider in this debate that we already are no longer “experiencing life as it was intended to be experienced”(Q-J.Speaks), due to the massive impact we are having on the entire BIOSPHERE of Earth and all its inhabitants. Science is starting to get indications that natural is a relative term. What could be defined as natural 200years ago is today already so changed, due to our presence, that we have no option but to include our impact in how we define natural. We are now at a crossroad where we need to create a sliding scale to define conditioning. Ultimately this will be a nightmare for scientists. A mere 20 years ago nobody would have thought it possible to dive with great white or tiger sharks without a cage. What kind of data would scientist need to be able to state empirically weather this can be done today, based on conditioning of the sharks or other factors.

    Nevertheless all constructive efforts weather they come from scientific research, management efforts, or from shark dive operations and that expands our knowledge of sharks and our impact on their population and lifestyle and through that contribute to the awareness of the plight of worldwide shark populations has its place. The ignorance, greed, thrill seeking, apathy and carelessness of others will remain a fact of life and no amount of wishful thinking or legislation will change that until we can change our mindset as a collective.

  8. Jeff Campbell · October 1, 2010

    I applaud you all for having the courage to say what you think on this issue. I decided to weigh in here, because on my first reading it occurred to me that “managing an MPA” was a bit of an oxymoron.
    The system is already impacted, and it will not return to “normal” until we either leave the planet for a very long time, or change our definition of normal.
    Regardless of how we act, we are still interfering with the ecology. Our impact on the planet has advanced to the point where there is no action, or inaction that we can engage in that does not affect the system. This is true whether we are involved in eco-tourism, resource extraction, or any action in between, and we all have our agendas.
    As Gudufl pointed out, we will never return to the ecology primordial, but we must have a vision of what values we are trying to “preserve” in order to manage: do we want more sharks, a stable population of sharks, fewer sharks, or as Eric Clua proposed in the Oct. 28 edition of Shark Science Monday, the greatest long-term economic benefit that we can derive from sharks? We can manage for any of these goals, but we need to become comfortable with our right to do so. Because we have evolved opposable thumbs, we have inherited the caretaker position for this little blue planet, though it is not yet clear if the intellect necessary to the job has co-evolved. What we need to come to grips with is that not managing is not an option; to understand that “managing an MPA” is not an oxymoron.

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