A federal council charged with regulating fisheries in the western Pacific Ocean has voted to ban “shark feeding” in federal waters off Hawaii, a move that could disrupt local shark tour operations.
However, any ban would likely be a long way off.
The recommendation created by Thursday’s vote must now be reviewed by two other divisions of the U.S. Department of Commerce, including the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, before it is rejected or approved by the department secretary.
That process can take years, said Ed Ebisui, a member of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council who voted in favor of the measure.
The council’s move comes even though it never studied the shark feeding issue as decided more than a year ago. Ebisui said high costs and conflicts over the design of the proposed analysis prevented the study from being done.
The recommended ban would be nearly identical to a state law put in effect in 2002, Ebisui said.
The state law, which also prohibits businesses from advertising or soliciting the feeding of sharks, was passed in response to community concerns over shark tour operations that put food in the water to bring the sharks into view for their customers.
State waters extend about three miles offshore, and federal waters stretch from three to 200 miles off the coast.
Operators acknowledge they provide the sharks with limited food. But they reject claims by some in the community and the council that their operations attract more sharks to Hawaii’s waters, are hurting sharks or are making the waters more dangerous for surfers, fishermen and other water users.
“No one’s looking at this with an open mind. Everyone’s, you know — people are scared of sharks,” said Jimmy Hall, owner of Hawaii Shark Encounter Tours.
The main species of shark attracted by the tours, Galapagos, are not known to be aggressive, and the goal of the tours is to educate visitors about the misunderstood creature, he said.
The tours also only go to one specific spot along the coast, three miles out, long used as a bait-dumping ground by crab fisherman, said Joe Pavsek, owner of North Shore Shark Adventures.
In its latest recommendation, the council advised the department to prohibit “the introduction of, or an attempt to introduce, food or any other substance into the water to attract sharks for any purpose other than to harvest sharks or other marine life.”
Among the five Hawaii members of the 16-member council, one abstained from the vote, two voted for the ban and two voted against it.
Ebisui said the tours have led to an obvious increase in sharks off the North Shore, and fishermen have seen an “explosion” of encounters with sharks, which puts the issue under the jurisdiction of the council.
“The fishermen are fishing. They’re getting fish to bite. The sharks are taking the fish. Sharks are getting hooked. Sharks are getting killed,” he said.
There are also concerns about the affect on the environment and a recent increase in shark sightings in the area, he said.
Shark sightings on the North Shore of Oahu are at a three-year high. But state experts have stressed that it is difficult to zero in on what causes spikes in the sightings.
Ebisui said the ban is not on the shark tours, but on the practice of manipulating the environment.
Both operators, however, say they doubt the council’s authority over their operations.