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Will Killing Sharks Finally Stop Hawai‘i’s Epidemic of Attacks?

Shark attacks spiked 56 percent over the past four years. Folks on O‘ahu and the Neighbor Islands are nervously asking why. HONOLULU dives deep to find out what’s going on, and what’s different, this time around.


(page 4 of 5)

Photo: courtesy of carl meyer


For Tseu, the shark attacks now relate to today’s Mauna Kea protest movement, just as the shark attacks from 1991–’94 occurred during the centennial of the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. “To me, [the attacks are] to remind us Hawaiians to wake up, time to change, you’re being affected by what’s going on around you.”


Are shark-cage tours spurring attacks? O‘ahu’s newest tourist attraction actually tries to maximize the odds of shark and man bumping into each other. A relatively recent phenomenon around the world, the tours first exploded in places like South Africa, the Bahamas, Florida, Mexico and Australia. It’s a simple idea: Just throw some meat in the water, add tourists in a cage suspended over the side of a boat, and let the carnage begin. There’s a lot of money in it, and no regulations, except one: Do not chum, i.e., dump blood, fish parts and meat in the water to attract sharks to the cages, inside the 3-mile limit. Some real trouble started when the shark tours didn’t respect this kapu.


There is no question that shark-cage dives are controversial—from Florida to South Africa they’ve been met with bans, protests and even threats. The arguments against shark tourism were summed up in a 1998 paper published by George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File for the Florida Museum of Natural History (and, thanks to Shark Week, probably the most quoted shark expert in the world). Burgess cited four interrelated risk factors: “the safety of divers; the likelihood of negative publicity directed at sharks if a shark bites a diver during one of these dives; the possibility for ecological disruption; and potential negative impact on multi-user recreational use of the feeding area.” 


Mike Coots learned to surf after a Kaua‘i attack took his right foot. 
Photo: Mike Coots 


Hawai‘i is vulnerable to each of these risks, and a 2009 attempt to start cage dives off ‘Āina Haina in Maunalua Bay was turned back by protests. As state Rep. Gene Ward said of his constituents at the time: “They’ve armed themselves with pitchforks and torches. This is the place where you have canoers training. Once you feed those sharks, they associate the sound of the boat’s motor with food. Sharks aren’t stupid. If you feed them they’re going to keep coming around.”


Partly in response to the tension, in 2009 Holland and Meyer created a limited study of the sharks drawn to a North Shore cage tour. After transponders were attached, none of the Galapagos and sand sharks followed the boats back to shore, a major fear of surfers and fishermen. Then again, tigers were not part of the study—they’re rarely seen, and harder to tag.


Despite a drop in the number of shark attacks from 2007 to 2011, with no fatalities, the tension on the North Shore actually worsened. During the first three months of 2011, three shark-tour boats based in Hale‘iwa Harbor burned in separate incidents. The second boat was torched a week after a federal government suit against its North Shore operator—for illegal feeding captured on video inside the 3-mile limit—was thrown out of court on a technicality. In 2012, North Shore crab fisherman Douglas Zakabi wrote a letter to the editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin complaining that “My friends and I no longer take our boats to some of our favorite fishing grounds because now when we go out there our boats are surrounded by sharks. This has only happened since the shark tours started. The sharks hear our engines and they come to our boats and think we are going to feed them. Where do you think they learned that behavior?” 


Feeling burned by the media, shark-cage operators (and shark fishing captains like Tiger Bob, who leads midnight forays out of Kewalo Basin) don’t take kindly to questions about chumming, or anything. As Tiger Bob—no last name given—growled: “Nothing personal, but nothing good comes of talking about sharks in public.” If they do speak, it’s to say they go where sharks gather because of previous fishing activity. On the North Shore, they say, that would be the old crabbing grounds. 


The lull in attacks ended in 2012, the year of crab fisherman Zakabi’s letter of complaint. As shark sightings rose, even tours that did not chum or use cages, promising instead a “swim with sharks” experience, came in for criticism. Weren’t they turning sharks into cuddly Disney predators for tourist photo ops? It was one such education-oriented dive tour, led by Internet sensation Ocean Ramsey and her partner, “Shark Whisperer” Juan Oliphant, that sparked Keoni Bowthorpe’s passion to start his documentary and even place the photogenic couple of shark preservationists at its center.




An uneasy truce has held on the North Shore, perhaps because there is an environmental argument for shark cages and shark-dive tours. In the Bahamas, they’ve gained the backing of the Pew Charitable Trusts and preservationists: If you create local jobs based on shark entertainments, then locals will take care to save them. It’s the way incentives are created for preserving elephant, gorilla, lion and rhino populations by deputizing local villagers to combat poachers.  


Still, none of the game reserves taunt their star attractions with bloody steaks to provoke a satisfying reaction. And people don’t go walking out in lion country the way surfers, snorkelers and swimmers share the ocean with apex predators. What will the sharks feed on the days the tour isn’t there?


“There is no doubt in my mind that the shark-dive outfits, by operating via chumming, change the behavior of sharks,” says NOAA’s Littnan. “It correlates with the stuff we saw with the lobster fishery at French Frigate Shoals. The fishermen were putting 700,000 pounds of bait in the water every year. That’s a strong signal,” that the sharks treated as a food source once massive takings by bottom fishermen depleted the lobster population. Several bans on the fishery culminated in a complete ban in 2000. 


What was good for the lobster was bad for the monk seal. “Before the bait was removed, we didn’t lose seal pups at French Frigate Shoals,” Littnan explains. “After, we started to lose pups. The sharks adopted a diversity of foraging strategies. It got so you could slap the surface of the water and Galapagos sharks would be there in seconds.” The speed of shark adaptation has been the subject of scientific and cultural controversy, especially since a small group of Galapagos sharks began hurling itself onto dry land in order to snap up seal pups. A vision out of Sharknado, the never-before-observed behavior was termed “learned”—the way bears can be lured into camps by the scent of garbage cans, the way raccoons open refrigerators. 


What can we do about attacks?

1959 culling off Kailua. 
Photo: Courtesy of Young Brothers (1959)

The standard practice, before Billy Weaver’s death in 1958, was to set a few hooks at the attack site for a couple of days. When Weaver’s body was laid out before a crowd of Christmas season swimmers on Lanikai Beach, the response stirred something deep. In that year before statehood, when the jet plane was opening the Islands to the world and many people anticipated a tourist bonanza, the last thing needed was a shark attack. Weaver’s death set off a state-sanctioned shark culling, or catching and killing, that lasted two years, and was renewed five times, until 1976.


But, in 1993, when researchers Bradley Wetherbee, Christopher Lowe and Gerald Crow (current curator at the Waikīkī Aquarium) examined the data to assist the state in its response to the 1991–’94 attack spike, they found that the percentage of tiger sharks in the 1959–’60 catch actually went up after culling, to 12.5 percent. When culling from 1967 to 1969 took “534 sharks from O‘ahu waters, 75 from the Honolulu/Waikīkī area, of which 18 were tiger sharks,” the percentage of tigers went up yet again, to 16 percent. Results of a culling in 1971 startled most: The number of tigers shot up to 50 percent. Had culling the biggest tigers opened the door for many more younger tigers to swarm up the food chain? Was culling making things worse?


One thing the authors could say: If you were looking to stem shark attacks, the culling had “no measurable effect.” Culling was a ritual—an exorcism of the horror. For this, 4,668 sharks died.


Colin Cook, meanwhile, is out of the media spotlight and struggling to adapt to his prosthetic leg. He’s gotten calls and support, including fundraising to defray health care costs, from the North Shore surfing community and advice on moving forward from fellow shark amputees Bethany Hamilton and Mike Coots, both of Kaua‘i. “I don’t have any bad shark feelings,” he says. “They interest me and I’ve got nothing but respect for them. I can’t wait to get back in the ocean.”


Ten days after Cook’s attack, there was another severe shark attack off the Mokulua Islets, near where Billy Weaver died in 1958. Tony Lee, a medical devices entrepreneur, lost a leg while swimming offshore. The other leg, hanging by a thread, was reattached by surgeons. He has emailed swimmer friends to say the road to recovery will be long, but that he will be back in the water someday. Disturbed by the spate of attacks, however, a couple of Los Angeles financial backers of Keoni Bowthorpe’s documentary pulled out. So while there will be
no Saving Jaws this year, at least there has been no call for culling, either—only hopes for an uneasy truce with manō. 

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