Great White Shark Cage Diving Controversy: ‘Fatal Attack’ Likely?

The debate over great white shark cage diving is continuing to rage in Stewart Island as a new petition calls upon parliament to ban the controversial practice before someone ends up injured by its unintended consequences.

The petition, which was signed by 768 people, was delivered to the parliament of New Zealand on December 3, according to Radio NZ. It calls for an immediate cessation of the practice, which critics say acclimates the region’s great white shark population to the presence of humans. Worse, they assert that cage diving actually teaches the white sharks to associate human beings with a “free, easy meal,” potentially setting the stage for a fatal attack sometime in the near future.

The debate over cage diving is nothing new, and though it takes place roughly 3.8 nautical miles from the coast of Stewart Island, critics of the practice say that isn’t enough. Locals assert that their waters are no longer safe and that they feel afraid of the white sharks’ behavior, which has noticeably changed since the advent of cage diving.

Residents have long feared that the baiting practices associated with dive companies would negatively affect the way that the sharks interact with humans, and some assert that those changes have now come to pass. At least one local has compared them to “ravenous dogs,” suggesting that they are prone to hang around dive boats.

While the practice of cage diving remains controversial, officials assert there is little evidence that it negatively impacts shark populations. In response to the anecdotal observations of Stewart Island locals, the Department of Conservation’s manager for marine species and threats, Ian Angus, pointed to research conducted outside of New Zealand, which purports to show that cage diving does not increase the risk of shark attacks, as TV NZ points out. An international review conducted by the Australian Crown scientific body CSIRO likewise concluded that there is little public safety risk associated with an increase in cage diving.

The debate over cage diving isn’t endemic to New Zealand, extending to various regions of the world known to be hotspots for great white shark populations. Each locale has its own infrastructure for regulating the practice, which regularly brings divers into contact with potentially lethal predators. Earlier this summer, officials in Massachusetts passed a set of ordinances establishing a permitting system for dive companies and anglers working with the region’s burgeoning white shark population. Predicated on the idea that cage diving and baiting can lead sharks to associate humans with food, the regulations strove to manage those interactions.

Cage diving is not only potentially dangerous for divers, however, and regulations are often meant to protect sharks as well. In New Zealand, dive operators are allowed to bait white sharks, but not to feed them (permit conditions for bait have been increased, along with active monitoring of those companies). In South Africa, however, videos have emerged that show white sharks impacting dive cages as they chase bait towed by handlers. A viral photo of a great white shark that emerged last year led to open criticism of bait handling, while a much more recent video of a white shark dramatically impacting a dive cage evinces the potential dangers that the practice poses for white sharks.

Despite the research cited by the DOC, Professor Ken Hughey, their chief science adviser, asserts that the government is not dismissing the notion that the sharks’ behavior has changed. The department is due to review the cage diving question again in the coming year, and state that they remain open to hearing from the Stewart Island community regarding the local great white shark population.

[Image via Elias Levy – Own Work | Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC BY 2.0]