Great White Sharks ‘Targeting’ New Zealand Town?

Residents of New Zealand’s Stewart Island are voicing their displeasure with local charter companies which cater to tourists eager to interact with great white sharks, asserting that the practice is altering the behavior of the predatory fish, and even potentially putting lives in danger.

The sharks are hardly new visitors to the island, long known to be one of the world’s hotspots for the elusive species. Yet, since 2007, when cage diving companies first began to establish themselves in the region, locals assert that their relationship with the animals has changed. Many of them blame those same companies, and the practices that they use to attract the sharks, for the seemingly dramatic shift in behavior that has been at least anecdotally documented.

Richard “Squizzy” Squires is a 62-year-old businessman who runs La Loma fishing charters on Stewart Island. Speaking with the Guardian in the waterfront town of Oban, Squires voiced his opinion of the cage diving companies, relating his own experiences with the region’s great white shark population.

“When [the operators] say they don’t follow boats, that’s a crock of s***. The last few years those sharks have shown an unhealthy interest in boats, and they are acting more aggressively. No other shark cage-diving operations operate this close to a tourist resort that is involved with the sea.”

Squires asserts that his boat has been attacked at least twice by a great white shark, and he suspects that the same animal was responsible in both cases. In another instance, a 20-foot-long white shark followed his vessel (which is barely twice the animal’s length) for an hour and a half.

Other locals corroborate Squires’ assertion that the behavior of the local shark populations has been altered. Phillip Smith, a 72-year-old Maori elder, acknowledged that the sharks were present at Stewart Island even in his childhood. Their relationship to the human population has changed, however, and according to Smith the once-reclusive animals are now seen far more often, and in greater numbers. Even more troubling, they seem to have little problem approaching anglers and boaters.

“The sharks’ behavior has changed since the cage diving started, no doubt about it. Now when they see a boat, or a float, the sharks associate it with food. We are being targeted, and it’s only a matter of time before they get someone.”

The cage diving companies, for their part, deny that the sharks’ behavior has changed in the decade since the ecotourism practice first took root in Stewart Island. They are permitted to attract sharks using large chunks of tuna, USA Today notes, much to the ire of locals. They also chum the waters, a tactic similarly adopted by Discovery Channel filmmakers who have traveled to New Zealand in recent years in order to document the great whites for Shark Week.

In response to concerns raised by the residents of Stewart Island, New Zealand’s DOC instituted a permitting system for cage diving companies in 2014. It isn’t only in New Zealand where cage diving has proven to be controversial, however, and other great white hotspots have seen similar debates emerge, particularly in proximity to populated areas. In South Africa, for example, a viral photo of a great white shark that emerged several years ago raised questions about the potential dangers cage diving presents to great whites. Videos filmed in the same region have shown white sharks ramming cages, and even losing teeth when they inadvertently bite steel bars while chasing bait.

In Cape Cod, officials instituted similar regulations last summer in an effort to control interactions between anglers and white sharks, amid concerns that echo those voiced in New Zealand. Experts warn that repeated feeding of white sharks could potentially habituate them to human contact, in effect training them to associate people with easily available food. While some may question and debate whether such conditioning could take root in wild great white shark populations, many of the residents of Stewart Island have already reached their own conclusions.

[Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]