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Conservationists fight to corral 'shark rodeos'

In "shark rodeos," captive audiences pay money to feed marine wildlife such as this grey reef shark  

Getting up-close and personal with a school of hungry sharks strikes fear in most people.

But shark dives, also known as "shark rodeos," are a booming industry that annually caters to 25,000 adventure seekers who pay to swim with the predatory fish.

Conservation groups say the practice of feeding marine life harms the animals that are fed, has harmful ecological impact and poses a school of safety problems for humans.

"I think people should respect marine life and protect it in its natural environment," said DeeVon Quirolo, executive director of Reef Relief.

At the urging of several organizations, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted in February to draft a rule prohibiting the feeding of marine life.

On Thursday, the rule will come up for a final vote. Conservationists cite several reasons why the regulation should pass.

While scientific data on the feeding of wild animals by humans dates back more than a century, the historical record on the effects of feeding marine life is slim. Proponents of underwater fish-feeding claim more research is necessary to examine the negative impact of the practice.

Fish feeding provides economic and educational benefits that outweigh the problems, many groups maintain.

"Shark dives are a wonderful tool," said Jim Abernethy, owner of a scuba-diving company in Palm Beach, Florida. "They provide people with first-hand knowledge of what the species is all about. We are teaching people that sharks are beautiful creatures that need to be protected."

Studies show that feeding marine wildlife is harmful and dangerous  

Marine conservationists disagree. They believe the educational value of the dives is negative, sending the message that it is OK to feed wildlife.

"People don't need to personally share a water buffalo lunch with a tiger to appreciate that animal's value and need of protection," said Bill Alvizon, a marine ecologist who supports the ban.

How do the diving operations work?

An advertisement for a shark rodeo at Walker's Cay in the Bahamas reads, "As the boat approaches the shark feeding area, the boat captain circles and revs the engine five or six times. This signals the sharks in the area that it is feeding time. The brave divers enter the water and they are immediately greeted by circling sharks waiting for their free meal."

To attract sharks, companies often use a "chumsicle" - a huge chunk of frozen fish that is often consumed in a matter of minutes.

According to the National Park Service, such feeding practices alter the natural distribution patterns and behavior of wildlife in nearly every vertebrate animal studied, including, bears, alligators, skunks, raccoons, deer and dolphins. The Park Service has banned wildlife feeding in all national parks.

A recent report by Alevizon said that fed animals tend to lose their natural wariness of humans, putting them at an increased risk of accidental strikes or entanglement with human devices.

The report suggests that fed fish are subject to the same problems as land animals that are fed by humans: "Sharks and most other 'fed' reef fishes are like bears, deer, raccoons, and dolphins: opportunistic feeders, and therefor would reasonably be expected to respond to human handouts in much the same manner."

Experts on fish nutrition point out that many foods commonly fed to fish by divers could cause health problems because the fish don't normally encounter such substances.

The report also warns that, by changing feeding behavior and the types of foods that fish are used to as well as the time and place that the feeding occurs, fundamental ecosystem processes such as feeding relationships will be disrupted.

"We are concerned about how quickly the industry is growing," said Paul Johnson, a board member of Reef Relief. "Half of all the commercial dives in the Bahamas are feed dives that alter the behavior of marine life. We don't want to see that happen in Florida, the number one dive destination in the world."

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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Reef Relief
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
   •a recent report on fish feeding operations
Scuba Adventures

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