Earlier this month the New Zealand court of appeal ruled that shark cage diving is illegal, and as a result cage diving tourism will soon cease in the country.
But is a ban an appropriate course of action when shark population numbers are declining globally?
The New Zealand ruling centres on the white shark cage diving operations off Stewart Island, which first began nine years ago. Although they were initially unregulated, 2013 saw the introduction of a code of practice developed by the Department of Conservation, followed by the introduction of permits to operate in 2014.
Despite these measures, a significant number of Stewart Islanders who spend their days in or on the sea, such as abalone divers, fishers and charter boat operators, claimed the white sharks’ behaviour changed dramatically after the cage diving began. They believe they are now being targeted by the sharks.
Mounting public pressure appears to have led to the ban, despite no recorded incidents.
Cage diving to view great white sharks is a huge part of the shark tourism industry and has developed across California, Mexico, South Africa, South Australia and New Zealand. The socioeconomic importance of these practices – essentially the increased monetisation of live sharks over dead ones – has been used to argue that exposure to sharks in this way may foster a positive conservation ethic within tourists. This, the theory goes, then results in the general public advocating for increased protective measures for sharks.
A study published in the journal Marine Policy in February investigated the attitudes and environmental behaviour of wildlife tourists following a white shark cage diving experience in South Australia. The results showed a positive shift in participants’ understanding, awareness, attitudes and concern for sharks.
Another study published this year pointed out that a set of new challenges facing the cage diving industry is starting to emerge, including:
i) Animal welfare
The treatment of the sharks involved in tourism activities should be paramount. Luring sharks too close to the cage with bait, which may result in them colliding with or getting stuck in the cage, is unacceptable.
ii) Ecological interactions
The behaviour and ecology of sharks and other non-target species needs to be investigated further in order to ascertain whether any positive or negative changes are associated with tourism.
iii) Fitness and bioenergetics
It is known that white sharks show increased activity levels during tourism operations, but industry regulations prohibit the intentional feeding of sharks. Some baits are still consumed, though, usually as a result of a high-speed and/or stealth hit. This bait often consists of fish heads which hold little calorific value compared with the sharks’ usual diet, suggesting it is unlikely that individual sharks could obtain enough bait to lead to conditioning, and so they would not form an association between food and boats/humans.
iv) Public safety
There will always be some degree of sustained concern amongst the public for water users safety in association with shark-diving tourism. However, evidence from South Africa has shown that increased shark attacks are not correlated with proximity to cage diving tourism, nor with higher numbers of water users. White shark cage diving has developed in locations where sharks naturally aggregate, so water activities will naturally carry a certain degree of risk.
The benefits of cage diving show it to be a valuable and effective conservation tool as long as it is carefully managed to ensure a sustainable and viable industry.
With the current global decline of shark populations, it is difficult to see how banning responsible cage diving operations would benefit anyone, least of all the sharks.
Apps, K. Dimmock, K. Huveneers, C. 2018. Turning wildlife experiences into conservation action: Can white shark cage dive tourism influence conservation behaviour? Marine Policy. 88. 108-115.
Gallagher, A. Huveneers, C. 2018. Emerging challenges to shark-diving tourism. Marine Policy. 96. 9-12.
Bruce, B. 2015. A review of cage diving impacts on white shark behaviour and recommendations for research and the industry’s management in New Zealand. Department of Conservation.