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Shark Attacks and Shark Diving

Published:February 21, 2015DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wem.2014.11.002
      To the Editor:
      It is with great astonishment and concern that I read the letter to the editor by Barreiros et al
      • Barreiros J.P.
      • Gadig O.B.F.
      • Haddad Jr, V.
      An unprovoked attack by a blue shark Prionace glauca (Chonrichthyes: Carcharhinidae) on a spear fisherman in Terceira Island, Azores, Northeast Atlantic.
      in which the authors report an attack by a blue shark on a spear fisherman in the Azores. Whereas the first part of the article accurately details the circumstances of the accident, Barreiros et al, in the second part, devise a far-fetched and illegitimate connection with shark diving, in particular with shark feeding.
      Shark-induced human injuries are among those interactions between humans and wildlife that arguably receive the most media and public attention. The general arguments of shark feeding critics are that 1) luring or feeding sharks over a period of time has the potential to condition them and that this conditioning could lead to sharks associating the presence of humans with food; and by insinuation, 2) make them aggressive toward humans. This in turn could lead to 3) an increase in accidents (eg, bites) at shark feeding sites when no food is provided. Concern also exists that 4) regular shark feeding at ecotourism sites may increase the risk of shark attacks on ocean users in surrounding areas.
      The first argument is beyond scientific controversy. There is ample empiric evidence that elasmobranchs can be conditioned and are capable of learning to associate, for example, specific locations with food rewards.
      • Guttridge T.L.
      • Myrberg A.A.
      • Porcher I.F.
      • Sims D.W.
      • Krause J.
      The role of learning in shark behaviour.
      Recent studies looking at long-term trends in shark abundance at such sites have found numbers, at least of certain species, increasing over time, which further supports the quite unsurprising conclusion that sharks can learn to associate specific locations with food.
      • Brunnschweiler J.M.
      • Abrantes K.G.
      • Barnett A.
      Long-term changes in species composition and relative abundances of sharks at a provisioning site.
      It is this very capability shark diving operators capitalize on to set up profitable and sustainable businesses.
      • Brunnschweiler J.M.
      The Shark Reef Marine Reserve: a marine tourism project in Fiji involving local communities.
      No empiric evidence exists that would support the other 3 arguments. If shark feeding critics implicitly deduce them from the first argument, one has no other choice than to assume that what critics mean is not sharks “associating” humans with food, but “regarding” them as a food source. This could be viewed as semantics, but they are the very arguments on which authorities have based the implementation of legislation on shark feeding bans. For example, in 2 highly publicized cases in 2002, Florida and Hawaii banned the practice of shark feeding while diving or snorkeling in their respective state waters.
      Barreiros et al
      • Barreiros J.P.
      • Gadig O.B.F.
      • Haddad Jr, V.
      An unprovoked attack by a blue shark Prionace glauca (Chonrichthyes: Carcharhinidae) on a spear fisherman in Terceira Island, Azores, Northeast Atlantic.
      use a certainly tragic but single shark accident to fire an unsubstantiated broadside at the nascent shark diving industry in the Azores.
      • Ressurreição A.
      • Giacomello E.
      Quantifying the direct use value of Condor seamount.
      If shark feeding critics are serious about their assertion that sharks regard humans as food, then it is time to come up with facts and figures. In doing so, the results of the respective studies will add to the objectification of the public discourse about feeding sharks as a tourism attraction. If shark feeding critics continue to refuse to address the respective questions by applying the scientific method, then their arguments remain what they currently are: tendentious and uninformed.

      References

        • Barreiros J.P.
        • Gadig O.B.F.
        • Haddad Jr, V.
        An unprovoked attack by a blue shark Prionace glauca (Chonrichthyes: Carcharhinidae) on a spear fisherman in Terceira Island, Azores, Northeast Atlantic.
        Wilderness Environ Med. 2014; 25: 371-372
        • Guttridge T.L.
        • Myrberg A.A.
        • Porcher I.F.
        • Sims D.W.
        • Krause J.
        The role of learning in shark behaviour.
        Fish Fish. 2009; 10: 450-469
        • Brunnschweiler J.M.
        • Abrantes K.G.
        • Barnett A.
        Long-term changes in species composition and relative abundances of sharks at a provisioning site.
        PLoS ONE. 2014; 9: e86682
        • Brunnschweiler J.M.
        The Shark Reef Marine Reserve: a marine tourism project in Fiji involving local communities.
        J Sustain Tour. 2010; 18: 29-42
        • Ressurreição A.
        • Giacomello E.
        Quantifying the direct use value of Condor seamount.
        Deep-Sea Res Part II Top Stud Oceanogr. 2013; 98: 209-217

      Linked Article

      • An Unprovoked Attack by a Blue Shark Prionace glauca (Chondrichthyes: Carcharhinidae) on a Spear Fisherman in Terceira Island, Azores, Northeast Atlantic
        Wilderness & Environmental MedicineVol. 25Issue 3
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          The blue shark, Prionace glauca (Linnaeus, 1758) (Figure 1A), is a large predatory oceanic-epipelagic species with worldwide distribution that is usually harmless to humans. However, its inquisitive behavior when facing divers in open waters and a moderately powerful set of jaws and teeth can inflict severe injuries (Figure 1B), reasons for this shark to be regarded with caution in some shark-human interaction scenarios. There are at least 13 recorded unprovoked attacks imputed to this species to date (eg, http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/statistics/species3.htm ).
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      • In Reply to Shark Attacks and Shark Diving
        Wilderness & Environmental MedicineVol. 26Issue 2
        • Preview
          In his letter, Dr Juerg Brunnschweiler expresses both astonishment and concern regarding our paper when stating that it “devises a far-fetched and illegitimate connection with shark diving, in particular with shark feeding.” We do not agree with Dr Brunnschweiler’s comments, because 1) our paper is not a “criticism” of either shark diving nor shark feeding but yet a description of an attack that might have had some kind of connection with the growing industry of shark diving in the Azores; 2) we clearly expressed a legitimate concern that, contrary to shark species with residential habits, the blue shark that caused this attack has pelagic habits and roams coastal areas of oceanic islands, and is the only species targeted by the Azores commercial shark diving companies; 3) the possibility—although rare—of interactions with humans and eventual attacks are real and may cause collateral damage to many upstream and downstream areas of maritime tourism in the Azores; and 4) panic and disproportionate fear, something that is worldwide associated with sharks, are critical issues and may lead to other types of accidents.
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