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Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds

Shark watching - snorkelling, diving and boat viewing - has exploded in popularity over the last few decades. However, in recent years there has been very serious debate about whether feeding the sharks for the purposes of tourism (known as "provisioning") is good for the animals. There has been concern that this activity could affect the health of the sharks, or even cause changes in their behaviour, which could be harmful to the sharks or even dangerous to humans. It has also been suggested that this kind of tourism is exploitative and unethical. So how does feeding them affect wild sharks? Is it bad for them? And should it stop?


Some ecotourism experiences involve feeding wild sharks, where others only use bait and chum to attract the sharks, but do not expressly feed them (Image Credit: Rich Carey / Shutterstock)

Let's Eat

Feeding wild animals is known as "provisioning". Yet this is an umbrella term, which includes feeding, but also "chumming" and/or "baiting" to attract the animals in (Jackson, 2020; Brena et al, 2015; Gallagher et al, 2015).


You might imagine it would be a good thing - surely giving an animal food is good for them, right? On the contrary, in many different species - from mammals to fish to amphibians - offering them food has been proven not to be good for them (Brena et al, 2015; Gallagher et al, 2015).


The food may be low quality, so mean they do not have the best diet. For example, scientists have learned that the squid provided to southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana) in the Caribbean was of poorer nutritional quality than their natural prey, which could affect their health in the long term (Brena et al, 2015).


Provisioning can also concentrate animals in unnaturally high numbers, which can increase the transmission of diseases and/or parasites, and can cause aggressive encounters to rise. For instance, sicklefin lemon sharks (Negaprion acutidens) at provisioning sites in French Polynesia suffer more bites because of competition over the food (Brena et al, 2015).


In some places, especially where ecotourism is not tightly controlled and regulated, overcrowding the animals can lead to stress or even injuries. To learn more check out Guilty Pleasure?


Don't Feed the Sharks!

Several studies have found that provisioning can also alter the natural behaviour of sharks and rays. This is no surprise, as the whole purpose it to alter the way they behave - we want them to come closer to boats where they can be seen, which is not their natural behaviour (Brena et al, 2015; Gallagher et al, 2015).

There is no clear evidence that provisioning white sharks in South Africa is bad for their health (© Sophie Maycock)

To give some examples, white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) in South Australia change the amount of time in the day they spend doing their natural activities when provisioning boats are chumming the water. Some studies have found that southern stingrays reverse their natural daily rhythms and occupy smaller activity spaces on the days when they are fed compared to days when the provisioning vessels are not working (Brena et al, 2015; Gallagher et al, 2015).


What is uncertain is the effect that these and other behavioural changes might have on the sharks and on their ecosystems... there have been conflicting results regarding how behavioural shifts around provisioning sites can impact the sharks. A study in the Caymen Islands indicated that the attractant created by such unnatural aggregations of southern stingrays may shift the distribution of great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran). Therefore, this could have ecosystem wide consequences (Brena et al, 2015; Gallagher et al, 2015).


Blacktip reef sharks in French Polynesia continue with their natural migrations despite extensive provisioning nearby (Image Credit: Supertoff / WikimediaCommons

However, some studies have found that there are absolutely no significant behavioural changes in response to provisioning and that there are no long-term health impacts even when there are. In fact, some studies have even found that some sharks completely ignore provisioning (Brena et al, 2015; Gallagher et al, 2015).


For example, great whites have been proven to maintain their natural movements and distribution despite intensive provisioning in South Africa (to learn more check out A Gilded Cage?) and provisioning in French Polynesia has no effect on the short- or long-term reproductive migrations of resident blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus). Those southern stingrays we mentioned earlier, they will also continue their natural foraging behaviours and are still very successful hunters when the provisioning boats are not around (Brena et al, 2015; Gallagher et al, 2015).


Some people are concerned that provisioning is having behavioural impacts and also damaging the health of southern stingray, but evidence is lacking and/or conflicting (Image Credit: Albert kok / WikimediaCommons)

Let Me Nurse You!

To provide a case study of how provisioning ecotourism can affect sharks, let's look more closely at shark dive tourism in Belize, where provisioning is used to draw sharks into close proximity with tourists on boats or snorkelling / diving in the water (Jackson, 2020).


There is evidence that Nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) are becoming "habituated" to the provisioning in the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve because, not only do their numbers rise very quickly when feeding commences, but they actually turn up at the feeding sites early, in anticipation of the boats arriving. This is a type of "conditioning"; meaning that the nurse sharks had learned to associate the boats with a food reward (Jackson, 2020).


Nurse sharks are regularly provisioned by ecotourism operators in Belize, in order to draw the sharks in close for tourist encounters (Image Credit: Jakob Owens / Unsplash)

These sharks also show other behavioural changes. They are much more inclined to come into closer proximity to people in the water, where they are normally much more wary, and their daily activity patterns have shifted. Instead of being predominantly nocturnal, the nurse sharks are now very active during the day and no longer hunt at night. They are also noticably more aggressive both to other nurse sharks, but also to other types of animals during the period that the boats supply food (Jackson, 2020).


However, how much of a negative impact all of this may actually be having on individual sharks and this species at a population level is not clear (Jackson, 2020).


There is concern that provisioning might be responsible for propeller strike injuries on some of the nurse sharks in Belize (Jackson, 2020).

More Good Than Harm?

What is clear though, is there are many benefits from shark diving tourism and there are many scientists who believe that, if it is performed in a responsible and ethical way, and closely regulated and monitored, that shark diving ecotourism will be beneficial for conservation (Gallagher et al, 2015; Jackson, 2020; Mustika et al, 2020). To learn more check out From Tourism to Conservation.



In my personal opinion, it is irresponsible to hand feed sharks, as an incident or injury would make for very bad press for sharks in a world where they are already irrationally vilified (Image Credit: Joi Ito / WikimediaCommons)

Marine tourism increases public awareness, open avenues for public education, improves economies and generates funding for conservation initiatives (Cisneros-Montmeyer et al, 2013; Mustika et al, 2020).


Shark tourism creates a significant opportunity for public outreach and education. Taking tourists for a memorable experience with sharks can help to shift their attitude and gain support for their protection. The capitol generated by these visitors can even fund these conservation efforts (Cisneros-Montmeyer et al, 2013; Mustika et al, 2020).


In Belize, an average of 156,180 tourists participate in marine tourism activities every year, which generates approximately US $183 million annually. This means more jobs, and better regional and national economies, which benefits the local people in many ways. This also incentivises the community to value their live sharks (Jackson, 2020). Their beautiful natural marine resources are now one of Belize's greatest assets and are being treated as such. Shark fishing is strictly controlled in Belize and gill nets have been completely banned in order to reduce bycatch and incidental mortalities by ghost fishing gear. For more info, head over to You'd Better Belize It!


An image of a nurse shark captured by a French tourist visiting Belize (Image Credit: Bernard DUPONT / WikimediaCommons)

The Caye Caulker marine reserve encompasses over 9,000 acres of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, as a category VI protected area. The goal of the reserve is to protect its marine environment from overexploitation by prohibiting fishing and controlling wildlife encounters. Using the marine reserve for tourism means that Belize is exploiting its natural resources in a sustainable fashion and placing economic value on live sharks, rather than profiting from their extraction in fisheries (Jackson, 2020).


However, shark tourism and especially provisioning in every country in the world, must be managed and controlled in order to protect the animals' welfare. It will also be vital to continually monitor the effects these activities are having on the sharks, in order to make ammendments to protective legislations if there is any concern that it is harming the animals.



There are certainly pros and cons to provisioning, so I will let you come to your own conclusions, but in my opinion, shark dive tourism is a very savvy way to reduce consumptive shark exploitation. I do not personally feel that feeding wild animals should be allowed, but I do believe that as long as the guide is operating within the law and not placing animals or people at undue risk of injury, that this type of tourism could be an incredible force for good. In a world where the number of threatened species are climbing every year, I feel that anything which can raise some curiosity and fascination, and offer some kind of protection to sharks, must do more good than harm.


In my opinion feeding wild animals including sharks, should not be allowed, but I very much believe that shark diving tourism has the potential to be a very powerful force for shark conservation (Image Credit: Joi Ito / WikimediaCommons)

If you would like to learn more about shark diving tourism, you can check out my other Ecotourism articles. To learn how to dive with sharks reponsibly, you can take a course to become a PADI AWARE Shark Specialist Diver.


References

Brena PF, Mourier J, Planes S, & Clua E (2015). Shark and ray provisioning: functional insights into behavioral, ecological and physiological responses across multiple scales. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 538. Access online.


Cisneros-Montemayor A, Barnes-Mauthe M, Al-Abdulrazzak D, Navarro-Holm E & Sumaila U (2013). Global economic value of shark ecotourism: implications for conservation. Oryx, 47:03. Access online.


Gallagher AJ, Vianna GMS, Papastamatiou YP, Mcdonald C, Guttridge TL & Hammerschlag, N (2015). Biological effects, conservation potential, and research priorities of shark diving tourism. Biological Conservation, 184. Access online.


Jackson CM (2020). To feed or not to feed: Examining the effects of provisioning tourism on nurse sharks in Caye Caulker, Belize. Master's Thesis, Nova Southeastern University. Retrieved from NSUWorks, 11. Access Online.


Mustika PLK, Ichsan M & Booth H (2020). The economic value of shark and ray tourism in Indonesia and its role in delivering conservation outcomes. Frontiers in Marine Science,7, 261. Access online.



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