Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hawaii - Tours Pose Little Risk

Three cheers for reporter Christie Wilson with Honolulu Advertiser who, bucking recent media trends in Hawaii, has introduced a story about what is not happening with commercial shark diving operations in Hawaii.

As we have been covering, politicians and anti-shark diving groups reacting to a tragically poor operator roll out in Hawaii Kai have called for a complete ban on all operators in the region.

To close existing commercial shark diving loopholes, this growing anti-shark diving group is demanding legislators to:

"(1) prohibit use of public facilities such as parks, piers, ramps, and harbors by shark tour operations;
(2) prohibit advertising of commercial shark tours in any print and electronic media; and, (3) prohibit commercial use of shark cages or other devices designed to place humans in close proximity to sharks or within shark habitats."

Citing a recent research study today regional commercial shark diving operators came back (finially) with the one thing they had at their disposal - research data:

"When it comes to offshore caged shark diving tours, there is no evidence of any risk to nearshore recreational users," said marine scientist Carl Meyer. "People need to understand there are already sharks in these initial shark-feeding areas and if these shark tours were a real problem, we would have seen it manifested by now by an increase in attacks.

"The study reports other factors that make the tours a minimal public safety risk include the fact shark-diving tours mimic the activities of crab-fishing vessels operating in the same area for more than 40 years, and that inshore recreational stimuli, such as a surfer paddling on a surfboard, "are substantially different from the conditioning stimuli associated with tour operations ... and, hence, unlikely to stimulate a conditioned feeding response."

Editors Note: THIS is one reason why operators work in tandem with shark researchers. To exclude shark research within operations is to blind yourself to important data about the animals you make a living with.

Additionally, ongoing data sets provide impartial answers to questions and accusations leveled by the anti-shark diving lobby at our industry members. These accusations are typically taken from a well worn "play book" of "raw meat hysteria".

The operators in Hawaii have a long way to go - but today, they just began the road back to credibility in the public eye. Kudos to all involved in both this study, and to reporter Christie Wilson.

Update: Reporter Leila Fujimori from Hawaii's Star Bulletin also ran with this story this morning. Kudos.

Richard Theiss - Balancing Industry Thoughts

I have blogged about this man in the past and am compelled to do it yet again. When I first met Richard Theiss many years ago he came to me with a proposal, a shark documentary of Isla Guadalupe with the resident Great Whites.

That proposal seemed like a decade ago now and in many ways for our industry - it was.

Over the years I have come to respect Richard for his innate ability to synthesize many facets of an "issue" and distill them down to a comprehensive solution. He's unique and he has a gift. Whereas I have found myself recently "skating the line" in my response to recent industry media shenanigans, Richard has once again, distilled this months talking points into a comprehensive look at our industry.

It's compelling reading so I have posted it in it's entirety. To call Richard friend has been my great honor over the past years. It's a friendship based on respect for ideas and a deep understanding that we're all connected to one another - in one manner or another:

Let's face it - shark conservation is a tough sell. They don't have the mammalian intelligence connection like whales and dolphins. They don't have the warm and fuzzy factor that makes us feel for polar bear cubs and penguins. No, unfortunately to most people, sharks are lurking just beneath the waves waiting for us to venture out just far enough . . .

And that's such a shame. Because - despite the critical role these animals play as scavengers and hunters that help to maintain balance in the marine ecosystem - as long as people fear them, they will listen politely to the arguments about the shark's importance, they will be put off by the gruesome images of shark finning, they will rationalize the very remote possibility of shark-human interactions . . . and they will do nothing.

And today there is much going on to reinforce that fear. And some of it is coming from the very people who wish to protect these animals. I have said before, I am a big supporter of safe and responsible shark ecotourism - shark diving, if you will. But my concept of "safe and responsible" that promotes conservation, works with scientific research, and provides a safe environment for both divers and sharks, is not the same concept as some others in the industry. Over the past several months, there have been a series of media publicity and community public relations gaffes the net result of which has been to show shark diving to be a haven for wreckless thrill-seekers and it is fueling government and community forces to clamp down or place an ouright ban on shark ecotourism at some key sites.

No doubt about it, at one time shark diving was a major thrill-seeking adventure sport, something only for the bravest of hearts. But it has evolved as an educational experience in the hands of responsible operators, in tandem with their understanding and concern regarding the future of sharks. Still there are some who cling to the images of the past and that short-sighted approach simply puts the media into its own feeding frenzy.

Now I must admit, as a filmmaker, I can appreciate their dilemma to some extent. Nature filmmakers have to wear three hats: the advocate, the storyteller, and the businessperson. In an ideal world, or an ideal film project, all three of these roles would work in harmony. But often one or two of them are in conflict.

The advocate wants to promote conservation; so the facts are important so that viewers will accurately understand and appreciate the subject animal. The storyteller wants to tell a good yarn; a dash of excitement, a little drama or pathos, and maybe a happy ending. And the businessperson understands the realities of what the broadcasters are buying, what the advertisers or the viewer ratings are demanding in terms of programming. Getting all three of these to work together for the benefit of the shark is a challenge.

Case in point: here's a short clip taken from my YouTube channel, RTSeaTV, that was done as a lark while I was filming a piece on Isla Guadalupe shark diving for a major online magazine. A colleague of mine, marine biologist Luke Tipple, and I were testing a two-man cage and at the last minute thought about making something out of whatever I shot on this one dive. It involved being in open water with great white sharks - something that is a highly calculated and thought-out risk taken only by professionals - and the cage proved to be an excellent platform to work from with plenty of easy exit/entry points (and by the way, totally unsuitable for regular shark diving customers!).

So, a little excitement and awe mixed with some important facts and a call for conservation. But does it help or hurt the cause? In a short clip, one can get a measure of balance; however filmmakers seeking to do long-form projects are always challenged by the pressure to pander to the gentleman in Kansas kicking back with a Bud and ready to change the channel to NASCAR or flip to YouTube if he doesn't see a shark attack in the next five minutes. Sigh . . .

So what does this all say? That we just keep on trying, whether it's sharks, global warming, or whatever your cause du jour. We try to do what's right, we suffer and carry on from the mistakes of others, and we never lose faith that, perhaps little by little, people will see that truth is the best antidote to fear and the key to understanding and respect.

Law, Ethics, and Trophy Fishing

When not dropping incendiary F-Bombs at all manner of environmental offences and those few individuals who actually deserve a few F-Bombs thrown at them, the Chum Slick Blog (written by an actual shark) does have some great thoughts.

This week was no exception. We feature the Chum Slick at this blog for two reasons:

1. His ability to throw a mean "F-Bomb for a cause"
2. On target bomb throwing

The subject of a recent shark kill for a record book notice has galvanized many within the industry to seek change. That change is brought about by voices in the wilderness who stand up and say "enough is enough".

High as a Kite - Climate Change

Where would we be without U.K's award winning daily newspaper - The Sun?

The only news outlet on the planet daring enough, maverick enough, to expose the true face of global warming.

Staring journalistic excellence in the face and not blinking today's Sun exposed the horrors of Sarpa salpa, a small non native fish that will get you higher than a mouthful of Australian Cane Toads in June.

Yes, this native of South Africa has invaded the U.K and now residents are fearful of techno-clubbers with fish hanging out of their mouths, staggering about like Zombies in the dead of night. It could happen.

Fine journalistic excellence known no bounds, you have to go where the story is...thank god for folks over at The Sun for breaking this story. Makes you want to go out and purchase an electric car...but leave your sarcasm at the door.

Hawaii Shark Diving - Rep Gene Ward

Like a tuna's ability to attract sharks in waters seemingly devoid of them, a politician will also be attracted to "an issue" just as quickly. Rep Gene Ward of Hawaii has chosen his next big platform to be commercial shark diving and has opened his candidacy as the lead spokesman against the entire industry with an Op-Ed this week. His folksy approach to the industry is peppered with themes and sentiments taken from 1976.

Posing a series of innocent questions couched in a framework of "raw meat and fear" Mr.Ward has masterfully pushed the agenda forward and set the table for existing shark diving closures in Hawaii.

Rep Gene Ward is not the problem but a symptom of how our industry fails itself. Mr.Wards newly discovered public anti-shark diving persona was spawned at the sight of 300 angry residents, protesting a simply ludicrous commercial shark diving roll out in Hawaii Kai. The arrogance and outright stupidity of that single effort is the reason Mr.Ward has chosen to make the banning of all shark diving operations his "new cause".

As we have said before and to whoever will listen - commercial shark diving is under siege. As an industry in the western hemisphere there is not one well known commercial site that is currently not under new rules or under review by politicians and agencies.

This is the face of the anti-shark diving lobby - they are well spoken, well networked, and agenda driven. When will our industry get it's collective head out of it's ass and start working on solutions?