feeding sharks

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Posted by on March 11, 2005 at 18:14:32:

"On land, feeding of bears, lions, tigers … many other types of feedings, are frowned upon and usually made illegal. Sharks are the only animals out there where it's still legal to feed and in certain areas of the world it's now illegal to do that … such as Florida, the Cayman Isles and Hawaii, you cannot feed animals in the wild." That comment comes from Dr George Burgess, coordinator of operations at the Florida Museum of Natural History and director of the International Shark Attack File.

But in the Coral Sea off the coast of far north Queensland, it's still legal. Sharks are regularly fed and displays are put on for dive tourists.

Mike Ball has been running an operation on Flinders Reef, 90 kilometres from Cairns, for the last 20 years. "Fifteen to 20 sharks swim around the cage, then all the divers lie on top of the cage looking towards the bait bin… At that point the sharks become very excited and they swim in and they mount the bin and they are just trying to get into the bin trying to get at the tuna. After 10 minutes we open the cage doors. The more novice divers get inside the cages and then we release the lid on the bin, release the tuna, and it comes out and in about 30 seconds the sharks go into a feeding frenzy and devour the fish."

As spectacular as this action is, George Burgess says the sharks have been trained and are just putting on an act or show for the tourists. "Part of the problem is that we are training these sharks to become used to food and the behaviour we see then is not natural behaviour but rather the generic equivalent of what we see in a circus where animals are fed or trained to do certain acts."

The area Mike Ball has set up in the Coral Sea has been nicknamed "Scuba Zoo". He has a permanent cage some 15m long on the floor of the ocean. He admits the sharks are waiting for their free feed. "They would hear the engines from some kilometres away and they would hear the boat moving to the Scuba Zoo area and that would signal to them that they were going to be fed."

Dr Carl Edmonds, a retired naval underwater medical specialist and founder of the South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society, says this is a dangerous habit for any marine animal, especially sharks, to pick up. "In the Caribbean, the real problem was morays, we dived with them for years till someone started feeding them, which was not a wise move. In a couple of years the morays had then related the presence of humans with food and they then started attacking the divers. I was with a diver that was quite badly attacked. The moray came three or four metres out of its lair to attack … I was so glad it was him and not me."

The questions over shark feeding have attracted little attention in this country. Politicians, both state and federal, don't seem to want to get involved. In our enquiries about who regulates Flinders Reef where Scuba Zoo operates, we first went to the Queensland Department for Primary Resources, who directed us to the Federal Fisheries minister Ian McDonald, who sent us to the Department of Transport and Regional Services and then on to the Environment Minister Ian Campbell … who says he is "looking into it". In the meantime, Mike Ball says as far as he's concerned, he doesn't need a licence to operate Scuba Zoo and he's never seen a regulator in the 20 years he's operated there.

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