By Dr. Erich Ritter
At its last annual meeting in Key Largo on November 1, 2001, the Florida Wildlife &
Conservation Committee (FWCC) issued a ban on skin diving excursions organized to feed sharks
in Florida's waters, effective as of January 1, 2002.
More than two years ago a small group of four harpoon fishermen submitted a petition to revise
a law and ban scuba diving excursions for the purpose of feeding sharks.
They argued that sharks which were fed became increasingly aggressive, thus increasing the
danger that bathers - and harpoon fishermen - could be bitten by these animals. Numerous
meetings were held in which both advocates as well as opponents to shark feedings were allowed
to voice their opinions. Based on the facts presented at these meetings the FWCC then decided
that such shark feedings must be regulated. It thus had diving tour operators work out some
regulations which in a later phase would be examined by the Committee. Representatives from
the diving industry and scientists joined forces to found the Global Interaction Marine
Experience Council (GIMEC) which in turn established a protocol covering all problematic
In the Spring of 2001, the protocol was submitted to the respective national organization, the
Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI), for examination. However, the FMRI changed all
regulations contained in the protocol to such an extent that it would have prevented any of
the four diving tour operators from continuing such excursions. Thus, at their next meeting on
September 6, 2001, in Amelia Island, Florida, the diving industry was forced into rejecting
the proposed changes which they termed unacceptable. The Florida Wildlife & Conservation
Committee argued, however, that these guidelines had been proposed specifically to help meet
the needs of diving sponsors by evading a longstanding Florida law forbidding the feeding of
wildlife. This is where the FWCC revealed its true interests, for such a law is only valid
within certain limits which, for example, exclude anglers who use bait to catch their prey.
The essence of the shark diving opponents' and the government's argumentation was that sharks
which are fed react more aggressively, change their behavior and hence increase the danger for
bathers. The Committee was hardly impressed by the fact that to this day, none of the
specified points could be scientifically confirmed. The starting position for the last meeting
in Key Largo was clear: the high number of shark accidents in Florida was used as an alibi to
call for a ban on shark feeding.
The stage in Key Largo was set for a highly charged meeting. The situation was underlined even
more by the presence of the police, together with representatives from the press and
television. Gathered on one side were about 15 supporters of the ban on shark diving, and on
the other more than 200 divers dressed in T-shirts underlining their opposal to such a ban.
Although the matter was already decided, the protocol called for both sides to express their
opinion one more time. Despite the fact that it was a lost battle for shark diving supporters,
they used the time to at least point out possible legal consequences to the FWCC.
In all discussions the primary argument of those supporting a ban on shark feedings was the
relatively high number of shark accidents in Florida, which they considered harmful to tourism
and must thus be prevented. The tragic death of Jessie Arbogast in Pensacola on July 6 was
mentioned more than once. But representatives of the Global Shark Attack File (GSAF,
Princeton, New Jersey) were able to prove that this accident was caused by anglers fishing
nearby rather than by shark feedings. Generally, GSAF representatives underlined that most
accidents in Florida could be attributed to anglers. Accordingly, they also pointed out that
if the Committee ignored the true cause then they would soon have legal problems, warning that
in 2002 it would only take one accident caused by anglers to trigger the initiation of legal
Environmental tourism has gained strong significance within the last few years. This form of
leisure activity blends fun with comprehension of environmental issues, a combination whose
importance is continually increasing when it comes to preserving the natural environment.
Shark diving is a form of environmental tourism. When people dive with sharks they can observe
them in their natural surroundings where they quickly learn that these animals are not the
insidious monsters which they are often depicted to be. Shark diving gives a broad segment of
the population a better understanding of sharks and thus contributes directly to the
protection of these animals and their natural habitat.
Ever since September 11, 2001, many vacation spots have been fighting to survive. The tourism
industry in Florida - the vacation state of the U.S. -also had to face quite a number of
setbacks and its loss of the attractive shark diving business will certainly make these
problems even more acute. Still, even if the ban actually goes into effect on January 1, 2002,
the matter is not settled because the wild animal committee has already been sued.
* Dr. Erich Ritter Chief Scientist, Global Shark Attack File, Shark Research
May be published only by indicating the source: Shark Info / Dr. Erich Ritter