There are ongoing debates whether the cage dive industry significantly affects the natural lifecycle of white sharks as well as debates of whether that same industry is teaching sharks to bite humans. Let’s set those debates aside for a moment and look at whether the cage dive industry does anything good for white sharks. Do white sharks benefit from this industry as a whole, or is it just another money-driven industry exploiting an threatened species?
That answer might depend upon where in the world you are asking the question. According to Michael Rutzen, of Shark Diving Unlimited, based in Gansbaai, South Africa, the cage dive industry is directly responsible for the current health of the population of white sharks along their southern coast. Keeping in mind that South Africa is a third world country (or some awkward place between first world and third world) let’s compare that location to the Farralon Islands in the United States.
The Farallones lie 27 miles from any beach that humans use for recreation. Additionally, the use of chum and bait are strictly forbidden. Combine those factors and it would be difficult for anyone to win the argument that cage diving is changing the sharks’ behavior, particularly in regard to “learning to eat humans” in that part of the world.
And let’s not forget that the California coast isn’t exactly facing any economic hardships. Why does that matter? Well, again, in contrast to South Africa, we’re comparing populations of people that might be more susceptible to breaking the law in order to ease their financial woes in one place than the other. Translation: If a fisherman in South Africa is faced with a challenging time of feeding himself and his family and can earn enough money from ONE set of shark jaws to significantly change his financial status, it shouldn’t come as a shock that this person might consider doing some poaching…especially if there is no one around to stop him.
"No one around to stop him"? But South Africa declared the white shark a protected species in 1991, in fact they were the first country to do so. Aren’t white sharks protected there? Well, yes and no. First of all, that same government kills a shocking number of sharks, including white sharks, in the shark nets that lie upon their migration route off the Kwazu Natal coast. Furthermore, it is the opinion of many I’ve interviewed in South Africa, including people who worked for the Marine Coastal Management, that coastal management is all but non-existent; Meaning there are no government resources actively preventing the sport-fishing or poaching of white sharks. In fact, when word got out in 1997 that people like Michael Flatly were willing to pay $30,000 for a single set of white shark jaws, it reportedly spawned a surge in illegal targeting of white sharks. Who is there to stop them?
Cage dive operation owners may be motivated by money or they may be motivated by their love of the animal or they may be motivated by both. But as long as long as they have a vested interest in keeping the white sharks alive we at least have someone fighting for the sharks, regardless of their motivation. In South Africa the cage-diving boats go out almost all year round, multiple trips per day. If the sharks are gone their business is gone.
This is a country that considered opening white sharks back up to commercial fishing in 1998. What stopped that from happening? The cage dive industry and the researchers who work on those cage dive industry boats.
But what about a location such as Guadalupe Island? Mexico isn’t exactly a country known for resisting bribes when it comes to upholding the law. But Guadalupe Island is 180 miles out at sea, roughly 24 hours to reach from Ensenada. The poachers would have to be exceptionally well funded and equipped to make a venture out there worthwhile, especially with cage-dive operators around 24/7 (during the peak white shark season) ready to report suspicious behavior.
Tangible arguments exist in defense of the cage-dive industry possibly acting as watch dogs against poaching, not to mention providing a group of people ready to oppose efforts to open white sharks up for legal fishing. But, what about intangible arguments?
I can say that after ten years of watching tourists getting on and off cage dive boats that NOTHING changes one’s perception of the white shark like seeing it in person. You can tell someone what a white shark is really like until you are blue in the face, but until they can visually replace JAWS with their own personal experience, it just doesn’t seem to sink in. It’s true that in the end we’ll only save what we love, so helping people to give a crap about the well-being of these animals has merit. Are all these tourists going to turn around and become advocates for sharks and our oceans? No. Are some of them? Yes.
But back to the tangible. As long as we live in a world where money talks and governments don’t enforce conservation laws, our best bet for shark protection may be in those who have figured out how to make money from living sharks as they fight against those who want to make money off dead sharks.
Debra Canabal of Epic Diving in the WSV hoodie. Get yours!
About the Author
Skyler Thomas is the primary blog contributor, cinematographer, and lead editor at White Shark Video.