By Chuck Strouse
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John Stewart, a West Palm Beach dive consultant and instructor, is one of GIMEC's main lobbyists. A scuba diver with 30 years experience, he says the image of sharks as killing machines is a "misperception." Like a good spokesman, he'd rather substitute the word "incident" for "shark attack" when talking about Jessie Arbogast. Stewart insists swimming with sharks in chummy waters during a tour is perfectly safe. "You stand a better chance of getting hit by lightning than being bitten by a shark," he vows. "The only way to see sharks and interact with them is by seeing them feed. [Shark-feeding trips] have been a tremendous benefit to the public and the diving community because they educate them that sharks are not the monsters Hollywood has made them out to be."
I wonder how the Arbogasts of Mississippi would respond.
At the May 24 Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting, the commissioners decided that the proposed guidelines, developed by GIMEC, did not adequately protect either the public or Florida's marine wildlife. Commissioner Edwin Roberts of Pensacola describes GIMEC's guidelines as flimsy. "The commission is clearly unhappy with the way the industry headed in policing themselves," he says. "There were weaknesses, and frankly there was stuff not addressed that needs to be addressed." Among the shortcomings, the proponents failed to designate sites where shark feedings would occur, and there were no limits to feeding sharks in murky water, where the creatures are prone to go into feeding frenzies, and where sight lines make it harder for divers to see them coming. While most of the dive operators feed the nurse sharks, there are others who've fed Caribbean reef and even bull sharks, and under the industry's proposed guidelines, the excursions could continue to feed any species -- GIMEC seems to think that any type of shark who's hungry ought to be able to chow down, even if it's a hammerhead or mako. The dive group also failed to define the distance from beaches and natural reefs where feeding operations would be allowed. (This is of interest chiefly to protect swimmers from "trained" sharks.)
Faced with the self-serving document, the commissioners directed the FWCC staff to come up with stronger guidelines that would define which species could "reasonably" be fed. While even this action is more stringent than GIMEC wanted, it is clear the lobbying paid off. The dive industry got the green light to continue interactive dives. Only one commissioner, Tony Moss of Miami, proposed a motion banning the excursions at the May meeting. He did not get a second.
Though they failed to ban the practice, Moss says the commissioners could still move to stop marine-feeding trips. For Moss, shark feeding presents a liability issue that he believes the state should not allow. "It's definitely a door I don't want to see opened," he says. "My position is you don't feed bears in a national park for the reason that they lose their fear of humans. I don't see a difference between [shark feeds] and feeding terrestrial animals." The consequences of a shark attack -- in the wake of Jessie Arbogast's tragic encounter -- are too great for the state to allow the feedings, he says. But the August meeting of the FWCC will be Moss's last. He is leaving the commission after six years. "We're waiting to see if both sides can come up with satisfactory guidelines," Moss says. "What we suggested is for them to meet among themselves to see if it could work out."
When I spoke to other commissioners I found that most agreed that shark feeding is not the wisest sort of field trip. In fact, they each described feeling (excuse the expression) somewhat torn, deciding on the issue, because the process of creating new law conflicted with their personal beliefs. But most said they could not fully support the ban because there just wasn't enough "scientific data" to show that feeding sharks and other wild marine life caused aggressive behavior. "I think it's crazy," Roberts exclaims. "It's not healthy for humans or marine life. Unfortunately Governor Bush told appointees: “When you make rules regarding wildlife, make sure there's enough science to back you up.'" Treading the line of making responsible regulations while knowing in his heart that allowing interactive dives poses a great danger sent Roberts into an ethical feeding frenzy himself. While diving with his family off Marathon Key recently, he was perplexed by a group of nurse sharks that glided curiously toward him and his children. Still he voted for regulation. "My guts tell me feeding sharks is a dumb thing to do," he explains. "But when you're dealing with an industry that depends on this for income, you have to be sure when you make rules that you make it for a reason. There was not enough science to support my gut feeling."
The revamped guidelines will be made public shortly, and will enter a new round of public hearings at the FWCC's September meeting on Amelia Island. Bob Palmer, director of the FWCC fisheries division, is helping draft the improved rules for the undersea feeds: "We have heard allegations of people who say they were attacked ... because people were feeding sharks in the vicinity, but there were no documented attacks ... Just because something is perceived as dangerous doesn't mean we have to make it illegal. [sic]"