Thursday, October 23, 2014

Do sharks feel pain?

There have been quite a few articles written on wether sharks feel pain or not. There is a lot of contention on both sides of the issue and the debate has gotten quite personal and ugly.

"Dr. Bob" with big bite marks on his gills.
"DaShark" has summarized what's going on quite well and you can read his thoughts in his blog here.

I'm on the fence on the issue myself. I love sharks and personally would like to see a complete ban on shark fishing. Having said that, I know that this is an unrealistic expectation and that is why Shark Diver started the shark free marina initiative and began working with shark tournaments to include a catch and release division. Now catch and release has become highly controversial as well, specially in light of post release mortality and the above mentioned "can sharks feel pain" debate. Catch and release, with it's post release mortality rate, is certainly not ideal, but it's far better than catch and kill, with a 100% mortality rate.

As far as the pain is concerned, I'm not a scientist, so I can't argue with scientific facts. I have been diving with great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe for 14 years and my observations have led me to think that they do not feel pain like we do.

Ila France Porter, in her blog, writes "Since animals cannot tell us how they feel, scientists have searched indirectly for evidence about their subjective experiences, in the studies of neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and behavior. Researchers have developed strict criteria, all of which need to be met, before they can conclude that an animal can feel pain". 

Fish meet all of these criteria, as has been shown in a wide variety of experiments. (Sneddon et al 2003, Reilly et al 2008). 

The blog further states that "the animal should be able to learn to avoid a painful stimulus. This should be so important to the animal that it avoids the threat of pain right away. The painful event should strongly interfere with normal behavior — it should not be an instantaneous withdrawal response, but long-term distress."

and "Yet no evidence has ever been produced to support the idea that an animal could live successfully, and survive, without the ability to feel pain, which is an important warning sensation. It would result in inappropriate behaviour, and the fish would go straight into evolution’s garbage can. Only a small percentage of fish who come into the world live to adulthood, and any weakness would doom them"

My problem with these statement is this. If they are true, how would white sharks, along with other species, whose mating is an extremely painful event, survive? If their feeling of pain causes them to  "avoid the threat of pain right away" and "the pain strongly interferes with their normal behavior", wouldn't they learn to avoid mating in the first place and thus become extinct?

The very survival of a lot of sharks is dependent on what would be a very painful mating procedure, pain, that this article says the animal feeling it, would avoid at all cost.

I know, this is not going to be popular, but based on the above reasons and my observation of sharks with severe bit wounds, like "Chugey" in this picture, swimming around without any signs of distress, I'm not convinced that they feel pain in any way similar to humans.

Like I stated above, I'm not a fan of catch and release fishing and don't want people to mistreat any living creature. What I'm saying though is this. If we want something to change, we have to address it scientifically and not emotionally. It's easy to convince other people who love sharks as much as we do to protect them. If we want to save sharks, we have to convince those who do not share our love for the sharks to change. In order to do that, we need scientific facts and not rhetoric.

Martin Graf
CEO Shark Diver

About Shark Diver. As a global leader in commercial shark diving and conservation initiatives Shark Diver has spent the past decade engaged for sharks around the world. Our blog highlights all aspects of both of these dynamic and shifting worlds. You can reach us directly at

How to conquer fear of sharks? Break the law?

Frightened of the water? Go swimming with great whites. that is the heading of an article in the "Telegraph", published a couple of days ago.

Catchy phrase! So is this article really about conquering the fear of sharks? Well, I don't think so. The article is really about Jean Marie Ghislain, one of the guys we have written about here when we talked about the out of cage diving that is going on at Guadalupe Island on various occasions. We all know that it is illegal to do so and, if anything were to happen on those dives, could threaten all the shark diving operations there.

Jean-Marie Ghislain posted pictures like this.

When we wrote about him, he of course was outraged by my comments and responded with this statement.

"Hello Martin, I am the owner of those images and I was very surprised to see them on the blog article you posted. I would like to ask you to immediatly remove them from the web as well as the comments that concerns them- which dont correspond to the reality in that specific situation. The person who is facing the shark had to push the shark away as it was a very intrusive personality and he touched it as little as he could and the dive was aborted immediatly. I don't want the images to be used in a provocative way when they don't reflect the reality of what happened. And I especially don't condone or encourage physical contacts with sharks, but in this specific instance, it could not be avoided by the diver- as I said, he got out of the water right away after the occurence. I am looking forward to hearing from you soon, Thank you, Jean-Marie Ghislain"

So after removing the "offending" pictures and publishing his response here, he is now featured in this article on the "Telegraph"

Jean Marie Ghislain is quoted as saying. “One day in Guadalupe [an island off Baja California in Mexico] three of us were swimming with two great whites. One was a young macho who just wanted us out of the water. But there was this huge, five-metre female who was the coolest shark I’ve ever met. She played with us for one and a half hours and she wanted the contact - she was free to move wherever she wanted, but she clearly wanted company.” 

When I said they were not having shark conservation on their minds, while they did this out of cage diving, but rather did this for a "look at me" publicity stunt, Ghislain was outraged and asked me to remove that comment immediately. He said that it didn't correspond to the reality of that specific situation and that they left the water immediately when the shark got too "intrusive". Now Ghislain has the guts to publish the comment above.

Turns out that the article is not really about conquering the fear of sharks, but rather a promotion for his book "shark: fear and beauty". Again, no self interest involved here at all! "sharkcasm" intended.

It is really bad, when guys can blatantly disregard a law, endanger all the other operators at Guadalupe and pretend it's about shark conservation. Make no mistake, this is not about shark conservation, or getting people to conquer their fear of sharks. This is all about self promotion and making money.

Martin Graf
CEO Shark Diver

About Shark Diver. As a global leader in commercial shark diving and conservation initiatives Shark Diver has spent the past decade engaged for sharks around the world. Our blog highlights all aspects of both of these dynamic and shifting worlds. You can reach us directly at