Questions circle around Hawaii's shark tour industry


POSTED: Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Over 300 angry East Honolulu residents met in Hawaii Kai last month to discuss the issue of a shark-feeding tour operation starting up in Maunalua Bay. This discussion has since reverberated across the state of Hawaii.

What angers residents is that such operations could appear overnight and begin operations with the community having little or no say about it. The burning questions are: Is shark-feeding tour businesses legal? Is the public safe around these operations? What happens to the marine life where sharks congregate?




Shark tours briefing


        An informational briefing will be held to hear from experts about shark feeding in relation to commercial tours. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. tomorrow in the state Capitol auditorium and will be broadcast live on Oahu on Channel 53 (NATV) and live to the Neighbor Islands via HITS.

The shark tour industry in Hawaii allegedly operates three miles offshore, where they drop a shark cage off the back of a boat and let two to four individuals wearing snorkels inhabit the cage while sharks swim in circles around the cage. To get the sharks to come around the cages, “;chumming”; or feeding the sharks is necessary, and this is where the community, the law and the anger over shark tours clash.

Canoers, kayakers, jet skiers, fisherman and recreational boaters want straight answers to their questions because they are the most threatened by the possibility of sharks inhabiting their recreational space. Regarding the first question—“;Are shark-feeding tours legal?”;—it has been commonly assumed that from the shoreline to three miles out, the state of Hawaii had made shark feeding illegal, and it was beyond the three-mile limit that shark-feeding tours could legally operate.

Contrary to this widely held opinion, the federal National Marine Fisheries Service has made it crystal clear that shark feeding is illegal since an act of Congress in 2006. Feeding of sharks is therefore illegal from the shoreline to three miles by state law, and three miles to 200 miles by federal law.

Public safety is the biggest argument against shark feeding tours. If sharks are fed raw meat on a regular basis at a similar spot in the ocean throughout the week, would they not become habituated to tour operators and the sound of their engines? Would sharks, which have been around for centuries, not connect the sound of the boat's engine with the free lunch being thrown into the waters around the cages? Are sharks really any different from Pavlov's dogs that salivated when the bell rang and food came?

An earlier attempt to ban shark feeding failed in the 2007 legislative session. Is this now the time for the Legislature to again take up the issue with new vigor for a statewide ban? Should all shark feeding, shark cage or shark-centered tourist attractions be banned? What about scientific and educational research on sharks? What about Hawaiian cultural practices? Should a ban be partial or full, and should existing operators be grandfathered in?

State Rep. Gene Ward's district (R-Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley) includes Maunalua Bay.