Florida panel embraces ban on shark feeding
By Thurston Hatcher
AMELIA ISLAND, Florida (CNN) -- A state wildlife commission moved Thursday to ban the feeding of sharks and other marine life on excursions catering to scuba divers and snorkelers amid concerns the practice could endanger humans.
The 6-1 vote by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which had met to consider proposals to regulate shark-diving excursions, directs its staff to draft a rule to prohibit offshore marine life feeding by divers or others in the water.
Final action to enact the ban is expected at the panel's October 31-November 1 meeting in Key Largo, which also will give the public a chance to respond, as required under state law, a commission spokesman said.
"Even though the dive tour operators have an excellent safety record, the potential for tragedy is real," said Commission Chairman David Meehan, "and I think it's not a good conservation practice to take animals that are equipped to be hunters and train them to rely on people for food handouts."
Officials said the action was not related to a series of highly publicized shark attacks in Florida this summer. But it went well beyond what most observers had expected to happen Thursday.
It was the first known official action to regulate boating excursions offered by at least four tour operators in Florida in which divers feed sharks, barracuda, stingrays, moray eel and other marine wildlife.
Dive boat operator Jeff Torode of Pompano Beach near Fort Lauderdale accused the commission of making his fledgling industry "scapegoats" for the high level of public attention on shark attacks in Florida. He said he was "stunned" by the vote.
"It's very sad they had to react with fear, emotion and misinformation," said Jim Abernethy, who runs one of the four dive boat operations out of south Florida, one of which says it does not feed sharks.
The ban was pushed by a group of sports divers known as the Marine Safety Group. Its founder, Bob Dimond, who has been diving for 30 years, said he first became concerned a few years ago when he noticed typically skittish sharks moving much closer to him.
"At the time, I thought the sharks were being aggressive toward me and I was actually under attack. Now, after finding out about the feeding operations, I realized what was happening was sharks were approaching me, wanting to be fed," Dimond said.
"Our position is that the feeding of wildlife greatly increases the risk of attack on humans. We are also very concerned about the environmental impact that could be harmful because of the fact that they're changing the feeding behavior of these animals."
Tour operators defended the practice, calling it an educational tool.
"My goal is to get people as close as possible as I can to sharks so they can appreciate them," said Abernethy, who says his Riviera Beach firm has taken 600 scuba divers each year on shark-feeding excursions.
"Why is it I can take loads of people to shark dives and never have a single problem, not the first problem?" he asked.
Dimond said he doesn't buy that argument, noting that feeding bears and other wild animals is banned in national parks.
"When you feed wild animals you are causing them harm," he said. "You are not helping them. There are plenty of other educational venues that are more adapted to educating people about wild animals."
Thursday's meeting in Florida comes three days after Sergei Zaloukaev, 27, was killed and his companion injured in a shark attack on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Two days earlier, a shark killed 10-year-old David Peltier in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
But officials emphasize the commission action has nothing to do with the recent deaths or the injury earlier this summer to Jessie Arbogast, an 8-year-old Mississippi boy who was attacked by a shark near Pensacola, Florida -- the first of several such incidents in Florida this summer, none of which involved feeding excursions.
Worldwide, 15 shark-related injuries have been reported in connection with such feedings, while another eight involved professional photographers who used food to lure sharks, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.
Thursday's meeting was not the first on the issue, a source of controversy for two years.
The fight against the ban isn't over yet, said Bob Harris, an attorney representing the dive operations. He said it discriminates against tour operators.
"If this rule comes out, we're going to take every step we can to make sure it doesn't go into effect," he said.
The commission had worked with dive groups on a compromise that would have restricted feeding sites to at least a mile from shore, limited the size of sharks they could feed and prohibited direct feeding of the fish.
But divers said those restrictions would put them out of business, so in the end the commission opted for the outright ban.
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