Saturday, December 4, 2010

Jim Bullard on Shark Baiting

Recently Jim Bullard, a 38 year scuba diving veteran, wrote this article about baiting sharks on a commercial level.

Our entire industry will have to do a lot better in response to the perception that we condition sharks, exploiting them for personal gain.

That process might start with individual operator website outreach.

More on the controversy of chumming.

Jim Bullard on Shark Baiting

I am neither a marine biologist nor a psychologist. I am not even an animal rights activist. I am a scuba diver and an outdoor enthusiast, and these two endeavors have brought me in close proximity with a myriad wild animals, in their natural habit.

Over the thirty-eight years I have been diving, I have seen many sharks, but I have never been tempted to offer these magnificent creatures anything to bite. Just to clarify my position, I do not fear any animal in the sea, but I do respect them and their habitat. My very first dive instructor advised not to drag around dead fish while diving and that blood would attract sharks and other unwanted visitors. These practices, which I have avoided during my diving career, are now used by dive operators to intentionally attract and feed sharks.

The practice of shark feeding is nothing but an exploitation of a shark’s natural behavior for the dive operator’s personal gain. Though observing a shark feeding is an exhilarating experience, I believe the participants take part unaware of lasting and potentially dangerous effect this activity has on the natural feeding habits of these predators.

In the 1901 Ivan Pavlov developed the concept of "conditioned reflex", meaning a response controlled by a stimulus, by studying the gastric function of dogs. Pavlov externalized a dog’s salivary gland in order to s analyze what response it had to food under different conditions. It is popularly believed that Pavlov always signaled the occurrence of food by ringing a bell. However, his writings indicate that he used of a wide variety of stimuli, including electric shocks, whistles, metronomes, tuning forks, and a range of visual stimuli, in addition to a ringing bell.

The United States Forestry Service has observed a similar Pavlovian response in the activities of bears in national forests. The signs cautioning "DO NOT FEED THE BEARS" are not there because peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fried chicken are bad for the bears (though they may not be their natural diet), but because the bears’ keen sense of smell and desire for an easy meal have resulted in injured tourists and some vehicles becoming "pop top" food containers.

Shark feeding is just another example of animal behavior being altered by humans. These animals will, if they have not already, associate boats and divers in the water with food. Research continues to be done on sharks’ feeding patterns, and we do not yet know how far each species of shark range in their search for food. However, I cannot help but be concerned that the boat and the divers I am with may be mistaken for a shark feeding when diving in waters where shark feeding is permitted. I fear that a shark feeding will go badly and an observer will be injured or killed, or a diver will be attacked by a hungry shark that has lost some of it natural ability to hunt its normal prey. The inevitable human response to this would be something like what was seen in the movie Jaws - an outcry of "Kill the Sharks!"

The consequences of shark feeding would have an adverse effect on the institutions that implemented it. It will become even harder to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. If a dive operator can take divers to an area where sharks are known to gather, and can show divers sharks without interacting with them, then so be it. However, in my experience, most shark encounters have been pure happenstance; I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that when humans intercede in animal behaviors, there are consistently devastating consequences for the animal. It seems that the only animal that has not learned from this behavior is the human.

Jim Bullard
Scuba Diver

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