Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Are shark tours a good idea?

A public meeting will be held tomorrow night in Hale'iwa to discuss possible federal restrictions on shark-viewing operations in Hawai'i.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council will hold the informational meeting from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Hale'iwa Elementary School cafeteria. The council will solicit comments on options to manage shark-viewing tours not just on the North Shore, but in all federal waters from three to 200 miles off Hawai'i.

State law bans the feeding of sharks in state waters if it's part of a commercial activity. But the law doesn't prohibit shark-viewing activities that do not involve feeding sharks. State waters extend to three miles from shore.

The controversy surrounds Hale'iwa-based Hawai'i Shark Encounter Tours, a commercial operator that allows customers to view sharks in the wild from the safety of a cage. The company takes customers three miles offshore where sharks are "drawn to the surface by the sound of the boat's engine," according to its Web site.

Hawai'i Shark Encounter Tours officials could not be reached for comment yesterday, and it was not known if bait or chum is used to attract the sharks.

But North Shore scuba divers and fishermen have complained that the operation is attracting more sharks to the area and is creating a public safety problem. Jacob Ng, a Hale'iwa resident and member of the North Shore Neighborhood Board, said some residents are afraid to go in the water because they fear shark attacks.

"From what I understand, the shark boat operation throws bait overboard to attract the sharks, and the sharks get accustomed to the boats, to the sound of the motor, and as the shark boat goes back to the harbor, sharks would follow the sound of the boat," Ng said. "There's been a tremendous increase in shark activity in the area."

Ng said residents also are concerned because they've heard that Hawai'i Shark Encounter Tours plans to expand its fleet from four to six boats.

The company gained notoriety in December 2005 when one of its excursions attracted a great white shark. The boat's captain left the safety of the cage and swam with the shark, which was estimated to be 18 to 20 feet long.

It's activity like this that has many on the North Shore concerned, Ng said. He said some people want such shark tours banned.

"This one guy told me he used to swim in the Waialua beach area, but he no longer swims there because the sharks have been in the area," Ng said.

Paul Dalzell, Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council senior scientist, said there is a question as to whether the council has jurisdiction over shark-viewing tours. The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council is the policy making organization for fisheries in the "exclusive economic zone" (three to 200 miles) in Hawai'i and other Pacific islands.

"This is clearly not a fishery, but it is aggregating fish around a particular spot and fishermen use fish aggregating devices to catch tuna, ono and mahi and stuff. It's a bit of a stretch, but you could sort of make a connection there," Dalzell said. "Then the species of fish themselves are these sharks that are contained under our Coral Reef Ecosystem Plan."

Dalzell said it may take "several years" before the council can come up with a recommendation because of the cost and amount of research involved.

Among the options that will be discussed at tomorrow's meeting are:

Conducting research on shark movement, behavior and population.

Recommending that the state establish a moratorium on new shark tour operations.

Establishing federal regulations for shark tour operations, such as prohibiting or limiting the amount of chum that may be used, requiring operations to move farther offshore, and limiting the number of operators.

Banning shark-viewing operations in federal waters.


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