The role of shark feeding dives in shark conservation is controversial. Here’s the perspective of one PADI pro who’s worked in the industry for years.

Shark feeding dives have always been controversial, with valid arguments both for and against the practice. I have been diving with sharks all over the world for the last 14 years, both in natural situations, and when guides conduct a shark feed. It seemed wrong to me, that it surely upset a wild animal’s feeding habits and encouraged associating humans with food. I came to these beliefs from diving with sharks without ever actually doing a shark feed or learning about what it entailed.

Now, having been involved in shark feeding for the last 10 years, I often meet people who are against the practice. But, just like me of the past, many of these people have never been on a shark-feeding dive. Sometimes they’re not even divers. I firmly believe that we must minimize our impact on the ocean and its marine life as much as possible, and refrain from interrupting or disadvantaging wild animals in any way. However, shark feeding is certainly not doing this and is actually beneficial for sharks.

How do shark feeding dives help economies?

A few countries are famous for shark feeding, and I’ve worked at resorts in both — first in Fiji and currently in the Bahamas. Both countries use the “polite feeding” method of offering bait to the sharks while guests watch in a controlled manner. The safety record in both these locations shows that this is quite safe for divers. At Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, in Nassau, no one has died during a shark feeding dive, which have been running for 30 years. There are also no reported cases of a shark killing a human around Nassau Island.

Nassau dive shops all dive daily with various types of sharks. At Stuart Cove’s, around 60 percent of our customers come here specifically to dive or snorkel with sharks. Our shark population is extremely valuable as a tourist attraction. Sharks repeatedly rank first in surveys of the marine animal that dive tourists most want to see. Economically, shark diving and shark- and ray-related eco-tourism generates over $100 million USD for the Bahamian economy every year. This does not even count the money visitors spend on hotels, restaurants and shopping while here for shark diving.

The economy depends on tourism and officials recognize the important role sharks play in that puzzle. The country has taken every necessary precaution to conserve this asset. Researchers posit that a single reef shark is worth $250,000 USD over its lifetime. If fished, the same shark would net only $50-60 USD. The Bahamas understand the value of shark feeding dives and, since 2011, the country has completely banned killing the animals.

How do shark feeding dives help sharks?

Education and outreach programs teach the public, and particularly youth, the value of sustainably managing the marine environment. Shark feeding dives combined with education can improve people’s appreciation of sharks and turn them into advocates for shark conservation, which of course benefits sharks.

Marine scientists have conducted studies during our shark feed in the Bahamas, with visual observations, and by tagging and collecting tissue samples to fully understand the effects of feeding sharks. Studies have shown that only about 50 percent of the sharks in the area feed on the offered bait. Those sharks that join the feed and those that do not travel similar distances daily and exhibit similar degrees of residency. Thus, despite long-term feeding of this Caribbean reef shark population, feeding does not influence animal behavior in detrimental ways. So far, there is no evidence of shifting behaviors that might affect the ecological role of these sharks.

Look at the bigger picture

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to feed sharks for divers to see them. A healthy population would exist and we could just see sharks everywhere. Sadly, however, humans slaughter millions of sharks every year and many species are critically endangered. I believe that those people against shark feeding should look at the bigger picture. Put energy into helping to stop shark killings. Understand that shark tourism and feeding is to the benefit and not the detriment of sharks. If governments understand the monetary gain of protecting their sharks then perhaps they will stop selling them for consumption.

The Bahamas is a perfect example. Protecting sharks here and allowing shark feeding to continue has played a pivotal role in effective shark tourism. But because sharks travel long distances, other countries must start to protect them as well. When they leave the safety of Bahamian waters they are in danger of being killed. Although shark feeding will remain a divisive issue in the dive community, before you condemn it outright, please consider the benefit to both sharks and local economies when it’s conducted properly. And perhaps even try a shark feeding dive —  we’d love to have you in the Bahamas.

Contact PADI Course Director Hayley-Jo Carr to enroll in a Shark Conservation Course at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas.

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