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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Shark Bites

Air Date: Week of September 14, 2001

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As the so-called "Summer of the Shark" draws to a close, officials in Florida decided to ban shark-feeding dives. Host Steve Curwood talks to Dr. Robert Hueter of the shark Research Center in Sarasota, Florida about how these dives affect sharks.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Sharks slammed into the media spotlight this summer as cases of shark attacks, some failed, repeatedly made headlines. As the public's fear of the animals increased, sentiment turned against so-called "interactive diving." That's when dive operators toss bait into the water to attract sharks so divers can swim with these imposing fish. Now, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has decided to ban these shark feeding dives. Robert Hueter of the Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Florida says feeding the sharks does change their behavior.

HUETER: The boat pulls up. You can see the sharks begin to mass around. Usually, the time of the day is always the same. People go into the water. Sharks don't bother the people. They wait for the feeder to come down and then everything begins. So there is no question that individual sharks-- and in some of these dives it may be as many as thirty. Some are just a half a dozen or so-- their particular behavior has changed. What is completely open to question, and it's just speculation, is any kind of generalizing that the sharks might do away from these feeding sites, away from the specific stimuli, that are associated with the dives to go and harass, essentially, other people in the water, begging them for food.

CURWOOD: Some might say that, look, sharks are wild. It's really best to leave them alone. How do you respond?

HUETER: In a perfect world, yes, of course. It's best not to feed the wildlife. But when it comes to sharks, we have a real image problem. We have an educational problem. The dives change people's attitudes. In one dive, one half-hour dive, people come out of these things practically with a religious experience in terms of the way they feel about sharks: that they never realized they were so beautiful; they never realized that they were so controlled. And, so unlike the image that they went into the water with; that they're not maniacal devils trying to rip them apart.

CURWOOD: What conservation benefits, if any, are there from shark feeding?

HUETER: Well, in places like the Bahamas where these feedings have sort of been developed to a high art, it has led to the government realizing that the live sharks in that area are worth a lot more than just dead sharks. The Bahamian government decided to ban long line fishing for sharks and for everything else in the Bahamas, which not only saved the lives of the animals involved in the feeding, but thousands, tens of thousands, maybe millions of more sharks in that part of the world. So, this kind of an argument is something that we should pay attention to.

CURWOOD: By the way, I want you to clarify for us your position on this summer of the shark. It seems that you can turn on the television pretty often and see a story that someone has been attacked or even killed by a shark. Although other events recently in the news, I guess maybe that will change. But what of all these shark attack reports?

HUETER: Well, shark attack has been increasing in terms of absolute numbers over time. There's no question about that. If you look at the so-called rise in shark attack, and try to break down why this has occurred, one thing alone really accounts for it in a statistically meaningful way. And that is not the number of sharks in the water, but the number of people in the water.

Sharks are going to be off the beaches no matter whether there's a few of them left or millions of them out there. That's just their territory. And if you have a few people in the water, the contact opportunities are low. If you have millions of people in the water, they obviously go up. Not only that, more people are doing things like surfing, where sharks are known in the area, and we're just getting a lot more bites because of that.

CURWOOD: So, there's unlikely , you think then, a link between shark feeding with divers and the increase in these very aggressive bull sharks, the ones that are implicated the most in biting and hurting people?

HEUTER: There really is no linkage at all between the current climate of shark attack fever and anything that happened this past summer, and the shark feeding dives. There's lots of issues that revolve around the feeding dives, their affect on the shark's behavior and ecology and safety issues. But we're talking different species in most cases, and we're talking totally different areas. We need to take a closer look. We need to look at the scientific information, and deal with the facts instead of a lot of emotions and a lot of myths.

CURWOOD: Dr. Robert Hueter is the Director and Senior Scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Florida. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, Dr. Hueter.

HUETER: You're welcome.

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