Recent events in Stewart Island have resulted in the Minister of Conservation, Nick Smith, announcing this week that as of the final quarter of 2014, all commercial white shark cage diving operations in New Zealand will require have a permit under the Wildlife Act 1953. The timing of this requirement ties in with the start of the 2014/2015 summer season.
Until now government has been reluctant to implement permits for cage diving operations as it was believed such regulations would have a negative effect on the industry, however conflicts between Stewart Islanders and cage diving operators has highlighted the need for the growing industry to be properly managed. Commercial paua diving is an important industry on Stewart Island. New Zealand law dictates their work must be done without the aid of compressed air and they must free dive for their bounty. Many are convinced the cage diving operations attract sharks into the area and modify their behaviour. Their main concern is that the presence of divers in the cages and the use of berley to attract them, may condition the sharks to think of divers as food. The cage diving operators argue that this is not the case and point out that local fishing boats actually discharge far more berley than their operations.
In South Africa, white shark cage diving has been in existence for many years with multiple operators. The question of behavioural modification has understandably also been a topic of discussion there, and although several studies have been on the subject there has actually been little long-term research into this. Kiwi born shark scientist, Ryan Johnson and Alison Kock published research work in 2006 (South Africa’s White Shark cage-diving industry -is their cause for concern?) conducted in South Africa which looked directly at this issue. They concluded that, “Conditioning can only arise if white sharks gain significant and predictable food contravene current permit regulations prohibiting intentional feeding of sharks. On rare occasions, indications of positive conditioning have been observed at Mossel Bay (four sharks). Evidence exists that adherence to permit regulations and infrequent or no feeding of sharks does not promote conditioning, and may in fact cause sharks to temporally ignore chumming vessels rewards. Thus, conditioning will only arise if operators intentionally and willfully”. One observation that is made time and time again by cage diving operators (and their customers) worldwide is that in visiting the same dive zones regularly, there is never a guarantee that a white shark will even show up. It may take a few minutes, or a few hours or none arrive at all. This fact alone must in some way indicate that ‘conditioning’ to associate cage operators and humans with food is questionable so long as the cage operators do not intentionally feed the sharks or use excessive berley to attract them.
In July 2013 the Department of Conservation published interim guidelines for operators of commercial white shark cage diving operations. The guidelines were issued to ensure cage dive operators conducted their operation in a manner that ensured the wellbeing of the sharks. The interim guidelines identified some activities associated with cage diving that pose a risk to great white sharks. Within Appendix B of the guidelines, a table of possible risks in the operation touches on the subject on possible conditioning with respect to throw baits and states only one throw bait should be used at a time and all efforts should be made to not allow the shark to take a throw bait.
The Department of Conservation had originally intended the interim guidelines to be reviewed and feedback given by operators in 2015, however, the recent visit to Stewart Island by Nick Smith has changed this and permits will now be required by the end of 2014.
For further information about cage diving and possible behavioural conditioning please refer to the above links.