Sunday, August 30, 2009

Shark cage diving: an eco-ethical perspective

Found on the web over at the Afika T Blog a pro-shark diving industry response by Helen Turnbull and Alison Tower.

Detailed, reasoned, and passionate reasons to why commercial shark diving, done right, is good for local, regional and global economies and for the conservation of species:

I got some flack for a recent post on white shark cage diving, which is a tourism experience that I still am not entirely comfortable with. In that post, I referred to the two South African shark diving operators who have received Fair Trade in Tourism accreditation. As part of the process of evaluating these operators, FTTSA commissioned a research report into shark cage diving, including a review of scientific literature.

I asked Helen Turnbull, one of the authors of that report (along with Alison Tower), to share her perspective on this segment of the industry. Helen is a marketing and business consultant working on sustainable tourism development in southern Africa. She has been a judge for the Imvelo Awards and is a national trainer for FTTSA, as well as a member of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism-South Africa.

In the interest of full disclosure, she's done work for both of the companies she mentions in her article.

Below is the piece she forwarded.

Fear or fascination, there is simply no middle ground when it comes to the Great White shark. It is undoubtedly the most fearsome fish in the ocean. This animal simply demands respect by its mere presence. But this apex predator is, in actual fact, often a victim of bad press, mixed hysteria and intensive trophy fishing. Eco tourism has become a fast growing industry over the past decades, but still the question remains; what is the real truth about the Great white shark? Furthermore, by observing the sharks in their own environment can the ‘menacing man-eater’ label be pushed aside to reveal them as the cautious and elegant animals they truly are?

Dyer Island is a small nature reserve located 7-9kms off the coast of Gansbaai in the Western Cape of South Africa. Every year Great white sharks frequent the shallow waters around the island to feed primarily on cape fur seals and their pups. Next to Dyer Island is world famous ‘Shark alley, known as one of the worlds leading hotspots for encounters with Great White Sharks.

Cage diving companies run scheduled eco trips to the surrounding waters of Dyer Island everyday in hope of sighting and offering cage diving with the sharks in the area. One company at the forefront of this field is Marine Dynamics. A business built around employing local people, Marine Dynamics promotes sustainable conservation, with numerous active projects constantly being driven forward in order to protect the highly diverse local marine life in the area. Every morning, guests are met by a marine biologist at the Great White House in Kleinbaai and are given an awareness-based presentation on the mysterious fish, including their biology, ecology and conservation. Once complete, clients are escorted to the boat which is launched from the nearby harbour and then anchored out at the island (approximately half an hour from launch). The primary aim of the day is to promote responsible tourism and to allow viewing of the sharks in the least damaging way.

In that respect, all divers are reminded throughout the trip not to touch the sharks whilst in the cage. Fish oils (note: not blood) are occasionally added to the water and after a wait of on average a few hours Great whites sharks start to graciously ascend from the murky depths. The sharks are attracted to the this chum slick and appear inquisitive yet cautious to the potential scavenge of a free meal. They are curious about the form of the boat itself, and will always explore the shape before deciding what to do.

Unfortunately, like most situations where man interacts with nature, controversy surrounds the cage diving industry in Gansbaai. However, a closer look at the facts, and recent scientific investigations quickly dispels myths that this causes a conditioning of South Africa’s Great whites resulting in them associating humans with food. Ongoing research indicates that sharks would need to be properly fed intensively for a prolonged period of time, in order to develop the ability of coupling an alien stimulus with food. Interestingly the Dyer Island population of Great whites is non-residential, and individuals have been identified moving out of the area every two to three weeks. Sharks can exist with long periods without food, and can therefore travel vast distances.

Taking a closer look at the anatomy of this ultimate predator, it can be said with certainty that Great white sharks are a work of ‘evolutionary genius’. They are perfectly designed to hunt and scavenge prey in temperate and sub tropical oceans around the world. Analysing their design closer reveals bundles of intricate gel-filled pores peppered around the animals snout. These sensory pits called ‘ampullae of lorenzini’ allow the sharks to detect even the smallest of electrical currents created by a struggling fish. In fact, so highly acute and developed are the senses of the Great white shark, it is believed that they can detect as little as one drop of blood in a billion drops of sea water. Not only can they expertly smell prey, but they can also see much better than previously believed. Their eyesight is actually similar to that of humans, they can see in colour. An extra layer of cells behind the retina enhances the shark’s vision in low light conditions producing a similar reflecting effect to cat’s eyes. In terms of hearing, great whites do not require the use of external ears. Instead, they practically ‘feel’ the movements of others around them. This incredible adaptation is actually common amongst most fish and is achieved by a length of sensory receivers stretching down the flanks of their bodies. The ‘lateral line’, as the organ is known enables the sharks to detect temperature and pressure changes in the water, along with vibrations.

On board Shark Fever, Marine Dynamics 10.7m-catamaran vessel, divers are given the option to view the circling shark from beneath the surface, in a five man, rounded steel cage. The cage is attached to the side of the boat by thick nylon ropes, and it is in this way the apex predators of the sea can be observed in their own element. On descending into the cage, divers may watch (some more at ease than others) as the sharks pass by at close proximity and approach the hanging bait with awe-inspiring elegance and grace. Great white sharks are streamlined to perfection, their slender torpedo shape perfectly equipped for effortlessly slicing through the water, enabling short powerful bursts of up to 50km an hour. In the animal world, it has one of the most efficient and incredibly powerful tails for a fish. The highly adapted shape of Great White Sharks is said to be the very basis of aeroplane and submarine design of today. In recent testing, it has been shown that sharks are incredibly curious and organised, they will frequently approach any item in the water, be it organic or inorganic to try and identify what it is.

Evolution has allowed the species to adapt into a highly effective apex predator with very few rivals in the marine environment. Estimates from fossilised teeth indicate early ancestors of the species arrived on earth even before the dinosaurs some 330 million years ago. Watching the Sharks circle the boat near Dyer Island one can see their behaviour is much in contrast to the image created by Peter Benchley and Spielberg a few decades ago. In their nature, they are naturally very cautious. Unfortunately, on developing the interest to investigate an object, sharks will bite and taste to determine what the object is, leading to some horrific wounds if the unintended victim is a soft fleshy human. However, watching underwater it becomes apparent to some divers that the reputation Great Whites have accumulated over the years is largely unfair, and down to ignorance and misunderstanding of the animal.

Surfers and spear fisherman receiving bites in the past have been positioning themselves much in a situation as a human walking around a lion pen with a zebra suit on. If the lion bites and then realises it is nothing but false prey, does it then spit it out? Often in a dark wet suit with fins, the silhouette of a spear fisherman or surfer represents a close resemblance to a seal; great whites only have teeth and a mouth to find out as they approach the prey.

After climbing out of the cage, most divers expressions say more than words. Often marine dynamics guest books are filled with comments such as ‘fantastic incredible creatures’, ‘ Awesome, an experience of a life time’.

It is these tourists and their money can just contribute to the status of Great Whites in the eyes of the South African Government, they will then be reinforcing a crucial message for the species survival and future protection. ‘Great White Sharks are worth more alive than dead ’.

In terms of conservation, South Africans were the pioneers in protecting Great White Sharks in their waters. After the film jaws was released in the 80’s every fisherman wanted a trophy on their boat. So bad was the damage to the existing populations, the species became almost extinct in some areas of the world. In 1991 the Maldives, USA, Australia, Malta and New Zealand followed South Africa to fully protect the species in their waters.

Great whites sharks are not cute and cuddly like dolphins, and so promoting their protection is a battle in itself. However in 1996 another step forward was taken in conservation when they were placed on the IUCN red list as a ‘vulnerable species'. Not only are White Sharks slow growing, late maturing animals (often termed as k-species) their population counts are also difficult to estimate, as they are trans oceanic, and highly migratory. However finally, in 2004, a landmark was reached in global conservation, and Great Whites were placed on the CITES appendix 2 to regulate international trade of their fins, teeth and body parts. Especially in some areas of Asia, shark fin soup sells as a highly expensive delicacy, and the damage to shark populations as a result of this industry has been hugely detrimental. CITES was an extremely valuable step in the right direction for Great White sharks. The last decade has concluded some break through results for Great Whites, however to be fully effective protection in the future, efforts need to be globally integrated, incorporating the negative impact of foreign fishing gears on the entire shark species.

Despite the image of a Great White Shark generating interest and fear in the minds of many people, research and knowledge of the animal is still very much in its early days. Still, many questions remain unanswered. Biologists working with Great whites in South Africa’s waters have recorded, and continue to discover fascinating behaviour. One individual tagged on Dyer Island swam 22,000km to South Australia and back again between 2003 and 2004. Data received from the expensive satellite tag indicated that sharks can swim deep down to depths of almost 1000m where water temperature drops below 4 degrees C and light starts to diminish. The 4m female responsible for this record journey was named ‘Nicole’ easily recognised by her distinctive serrated dorsal fin. After visiting the island annually previous to this journey, the record-breaking shark has not been sighted since, and speculation indicates she may have become entangled in fishing gear during migration.

Research is conducted by the Marine Dynamics crew daily, of which clients can participate in, to identify individual sharks and factors affecting their behaviour around the boats. Dorsal fin identification photos are taken and individual scar markings; sex and length data is recorded. Comparative studies of underwater behaviour, in artificial (or chummed water) and natural conditions are to be conducted in the winter season, when water visibility of eight meters and more makes for excellent viewing of the Sharks.

In the Gansbaai area, a few privileged and experienced divers have dived with the Great Whites without the protection of a steel cage. Approaching the sharks with nothing but a stick in ones hand, these professional individuals have proved time and again that Great Whites will readily give way to a human, once satisfied it is not recognisable as prey. It is all about understanding and interpreting behaviour, which as yet we are only beginning to unravel. Furthermore, when an accident occurs between a shark and a human, media coverage immediately generates the emotion of fear and horror; the headline ‘Shark Attack’ sells newspapers. In reality, a human consists of too much bone and muscle, with not enough fat to sustain a great white shark, therefore even in the unfortunate event of a human being bitten, only very rarely do they disappear. Every year more research indicates that man is not on the menu for Great whites as previously feared and believed.

Marine Dynamics aims to dispel these untruths created by films such as ‘Jaws’, and hopes to show people what these powerful, misunderstood creatures of the sea truly are. Statistics show that only one person per year is killed by sharks, whereas 40,000 unfortunate individuals meet their end after a fatal snake bite.

Considering that globally over 100 million sharks are being slaughtered annually due to fin poaching and destructive commercial fishing, somewhere along the line we have to acknowledge there is a severe injustice. Hopefully, by promoting awareness and education through responsible tourism, effective support can be given to conservation efforts in an effort to redress the balance.

Most shark populations are in decline these days by up to 90% or more. So little is known about the Great White, like the Blue Whale, biologists have no documented evidence of where white sharks go to breed, and up to now have never witnessed two individuals mating in the wild. One thing that becomes evident is that more action needs to be taken to allow our future generations to enjoy and observe these solitary lords of the sea. Simply watching the sweeping tail of a Great White shark, instils an appreciation of the sheer power and grace of the species, and on visiting the Gansbaai area any true diver will agree that this fish is most certainly an animal worth saving.

Sixty percent of the planet’s surface consists of ocean more than 1.6 km deep. Yet our knowledge of the vast seas and life as it happens under the water is minimal. In fact, we know more about the emptiness of space.

This is where the role of marine tourism is vital, especially when the focus is on education and conservation, helping to address the need for balance between social and economic development as well as environmental protection. The sea itself provides food for our communities and promotes our well-being, but will only continue to do so if we make an effort to protect its resources and make a decision to support the operators that are at least trying to get things right.

Discover & Protect.


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