With last month's viral cage-diving accidents still fresh in our memories, now seems like the perfect time to discuss a proposed bill that would tighten the guidelines for shark divers in the United States. If passed, the legislation would ban shark feeding in federal waters, closing up legal loopholes that have sparked some controversy in recent years. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is on board. 

What does the bill actually propose? If passed, the "Access for Sportfishing Act of 2016" (S. 3099), put forth by Florida senator Bill Nelson, would make it illegal for anyone to drop "food or any other substance into the water to feed or attract sharks for any purpose other than to harvest sharks." It would also prohibit vessel owners from chartering guests for activities that involve shark feeding. 

As is the case with many highly polarised debates, the arguments on both sides of this one are a mixed bag of facts and fear-based conclusions.

What do critics say?

Criticism of the ban on shark feeding centres around two main points. Opponents, including many dive operators, say the legislation would spell disaster for their industry. "[It] would effectively shut down shark tours and eco shark diving in the entire country," one Florida business owner told The Sun Sentinel. Ecotourism accounts for a sizeable portion of many coastal economies, so legislation that negatively affects this industry could put hundreds of people out of work. Yet nothing in the proposed bill prohibits cage diving itself – and it's a common misconception that baiting the water is the only way to have a great shark encounter.

Does baiting bring sharks closer to cages? Sure, but sharks are curious by nature, and some outfits – particularly those based in Florida and Hawaii, where shark feeding is already illegal – operate without the use of chum. In fact, some companies prefer this scenario as sharks are more relaxed in the absence of food in the water. 
This brings us to the next concern, which does carry weight: responsible baiting is possible, and the proposed ban, critics say, would unfairly penalise diving outfits that follow the rules. Many respected dive companies obey regulations laid out by local governments, and cage-diving mishaps are rare.

After the accidents off Mexico's Guadalupe Island went viral last month, many online commenters called for a ban on all forms of cage diving – yet a stance like this fails to acknowledge the role that responsible dive companies have played in dispelling the negative public perception of sharks. Most scientists agree that exposing people to these animals in their natural habitat can actually help drive conservation. 

But enforcing regulations on a mass scale is a tough job. To start with, it's a huge logistical challenge: just how do you ensure everyone plays by the rules? Some outfits in Florida, for example, have recently been caught chartering guests beyond state waters to sidestep current regulations.  

It also doesn't help that codes of conduct for shark diving are often lengthy and convoluted (this one is 51 pages long), which leaves room for loopholes and grey areas that can be exploited. After we called out one repeat offender for illegally hanging bait on the cage, we were contacted by one of the divers. "What constitutes as bait and what constitutes as chum is ill defined," he told us via email. "Your article paints an ugly picture, but in my opinion, they did nothing wrong." 

The unfortunate reality is that the illegal or irresponsible behaviour of a select few can impact the reputation of an entire industry, even when that industry has great potential to do some good. 

What do supporters say?

Those in support of a federal ban on shark feeding are largely concerned that the practice puts both sharks and divers at unnecessary risk by influencing sharks' natural movement patterns and conditioning them to associate humans with food. So, the crucial question: does it?
A quick Google search will likely turn up conflicting answers. "Researchers around the globe, including from the University of Miami and in Fiji, have conducted studies on whether feeding has any affect on sharks. The results overall show little to no change in behaviour or attitude toward humans," reports Sport Diver. Meanwhile, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission representative Amanda Nalley tells The Sun Sentinel"We know from research with other species that these activities can alter a predator's natural feeding behaviour." 

You might be surprised to learn that neither statement is inaccurate. And there's a good reason why we don't have consensus on this issue: this is a very new field of study. In addition, every shark species reacts differently to human presence. Tiger sharks in the Bahamas and Florida, for example, appear to show little behavioural change in feeding and non-feeding regions. But over in Australia's Ningaloo Reef, whale sharks are known to suck on nets and approach boats for bait fish. Research in the Philippines also showed behavioral modification in whale sharks.
This issue is outlined in a more recent evaluation of shark tourism, which proposes that a universal code of conduct should be implemented until we have a better understanding of how these interactions affect various sharks. The suggestion? Avoid dives near popular swimming beaches, and avoid touching, harassing or hand-feeding sharks.

Existing bans on grizzly bear and alligator feeding were implemented because of similar safety concerns, and it's not difficult to see such steps as reasonable in the case of these animals. And yet, when a ban on feeding wild bears by hand was proposed in Minnesota last year, it came up against some stiff opposition. "As Americans, we have a constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, and for many of us that includes feeding and observing wildlife close at hand," argued an opinion piece in the Minnesota Timberjay.

In the meantime, the shark-feeding bill still has a long way to go. It is currently being considered by the Senate, and if passed, it will continue on to the House of Representatives.


Top header image: Armin Rodler, Flickr