shark Shark tours not welcome in HawaiiShark tours have become increasingly popular in Hawaiian waters, but tour operators that feed shark to assure their presence are now facing opposition from several different directions.

Sharks are an integral part of Hawaiian folklore and some Native Hawaiians consider sharks to be ancestral gods, aumakua, who helps fishermen by chasing fish into nets and guiding canoes safely back to shore. Tour boats feeding sharks for entertainment is therefore viewed as disrespectful by many.

“The disrespect of the aumakua, that’s what hurts us the most,” said Leighton Tseu, a Native Hawaiian who considers sharks ancestral gods.

Surfers and swimmers are on the other hand more worried about the potential hazards of teaching sharks to associate people with food. There are also fears that shark feeding will attract larger numbers of sharks to these waters and that the practise of feeding them will lure them closer to shore than before.

A third concern has been raised by environmentalists – how does daily shark feedings affects the ecological balance of Hawaiian waters? George Burgess, shark researcher at the University of Florida, says shark populations are likely to increase in areas where tours feed sharks daily, and that an inflated shark population might consume more prey, depleting other marine life. Burgess also fears that the feedings may attract so many sharks to those spots that sharks become scarce in other regions. This is naturally a large problem, since sharks are apex predators necessary for the overall balance of the ecosystems in which they exist.

Carl Meyer of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology does not share Burgess’s concerns, at least not for Hawaiian waters. Research carried out by Meyer shows that a majority of the sharks found at Haleiwa, a popular tour site, are Galapagos and Sandbar sharks – two types of sharks rarely documented attacking humans. Most of Hawaii shark attacks are carried out by Tiger sharks, and these sharks only account for 2 percent of the tour site’s sharks. Meyer’s research also shows that sharks at the North Shore tour site have not made any changes to their seasonal breeding and migration cycles since the feedings started.

Legal matters
Feeding sharks in Hawaiian waters is prohibited by state law, while federal law – which governs waters between 3 miles to 200 miles from the coast – prohibits the feeding of sharks off Hawaii and Pacific island territories like American Samoa. Fishermen are however allowed to bait sharks, and scientists engaging in government-funded research are also exempt from the ban.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu is currently investigating Hawaiian tour operators offering shark safaris.