North Shore shark tours draw legal concerns


POSTED: Sunday, April 26, 2009

While a proposed shark tour business off Oahu's South Shore was stopped by community outcry this month, the publicity has raised questions about the legality of two existing North Shore operations.

“;Shark-encounter tours are not what's illegal. Shark feeding is what's illegal,”; said Michael Tosatto, deputy regional administrator with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act states it is unlawful to use food or any other substance in federal waters off Hawaii to attract sharks unless they are being caught or killed for human use. Exemptions to the law include decisions made by the secretary of commerce if an entity is not posing a public health or safety risk; or when conducted as part of a research program that involves federal grant money.

Two tours—North Shore Shark Adventures and Hawaii Shark Encounters—operate three to four miles off of the North Shore in federal water, outside of the state's jurisdiction. Anyone found to be using food, such as chum, to attract sharks in federal waters without the intention of fishing could face a fine of up to $140,000.

Complaints are investigated by agencies that include the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service. So far, there have been no documented violations since the shark-feeding regulation became effective in November 2006, said Tosatto.

Paul Dalzell, senior scientist of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which develops fishery management policies, pointed out provisions under the act solely regulate fishing. “;It doesn't regulate anything else,”; he said.

Earlier this month, an East Oahu businessman dropped his plan to run a shark-viewing tour out of Hawaii Kai after many community members raised concerns that the business would attract sharks to the ocean area widely used by surfers, paddlers and other recreational beachgoers.

During the controversy, some opponents cited the federal law and questioned whether any shark-tour business was legal, including the two operating in federal waters off the North Shore.

Some organizations and shark experts spoke in defense of the businesses, noting the tours take advantage of a site already populated with Galapagos and sandbar sharks. Fishermen have set up white crab traps in the area for at least 40 years. The sharks are attracted to the noise of the boats and congregate near the vessels as commercial fishermen empty their traps of old bait.

Shark expert John Naughton, retired biologist of the National Marine Fisheries Service who still does consulting work involving sharks, said there is a gray area in the federal provision.

North Shore Shark Adventures does not attract sharks but only “;holds”; them with a small amount of bait near the cage to enable customers to get a good view of the creatures, said Naughton, who previously worked with the business. They do a good job of educating customers on the importance of sharks to the environment and the ecosystem, he added.

Joe Pavsek, owner of North Shore Shark Adventures, the first shark tour business established in Hawaii nine years ago, could not be reached for comment.

Stephanie Brendl, owner of Hawaii Shark Encounters, declined to comment on the act but noted that her business is not a fishery.

Kim Holland, researcher of the University of Hawaii's Institute of Marine Biology, also declined to comment on the act, but said the shark tour businesses—the only two statewide—help with their study on shark movement.

“;They give us an opportunity to study sharks that we otherwise wouldn't have,”; said Holland.

The shark project at the North Shore is part of an integrated study funded by private, state and federal money. Researchers are studying shark movement around various parts of the Hawaiian Islands. Working with the tour businesses, they have tagged 50 sharks in the last two years.