The Cayman Islands could be missing out on an economic and conservation opportunity by maintaining its ban on shark diving, according to experts.
Guy Harvey, the fisherman, artist and conservationist, has called on government to consider licensing dive operators to run shark interaction dives, saying it could be a boost to the island’s economy.
He said the Bahamas makes millions every year from shark diving and Cayman is missing out.
Mr. Harvey said shark diving would be a valuable conservation opportunity, raising awareness of the animals in their natural environment and creating an economic incentive to protect the species. Bradley Wetherbee, a shark expert with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation who was on island last month for the Cayman Shark Talk event, said there are pros and cons to shark diving.
But he believes that with the right regulations, it could help change age-old perceptions about the apex predator that has frightened and fascinated people for generations.
“Encounters with sharks when the humans live to tell about their experience and are able to appreciate sharks for something other than killers [are] very valuable and is part of a movement worldwide where sharks are viewed in a more positive way and people realize that they are beautiful and exquisitely adapted animals,” said Mr. Wetherbee, one of several experts to speak on the issue during the Shark Talk event.
Steve Broadbelt, owner of Ocean Frontiers dive shop in East End, used to run shark interaction dives before the activity was banned in 2002.
He said the Shark Awareness project involved a 90-minute lecture on shark biology, behavior and consultation. The dives involved using chum to attract sharks to the area and feeding them for reward.
Mr. Broadbelt acknowledged there are legitimate concerns about sharks making associations between boats and divers and food, but he said there are well-established protocols in other areas to mitigate this risk.
“I would like to see some amendments to the law that provide provisions for those with approved policies, procedures and training in place to be permitted to conduct shark dives,” he said.
“Cayman is at a significant disadvantage by not permitting shark dives. We have always had a healthy population of sharks on the East End of Grand Cayman and in some other areas around the destination. We lose a lot of business to the Bahamas specifically due to the shark diving that is offered there.”
He said specific regulation and monitoring would be required.
“There are industry-wide standards and best practices on shark feeding that must be followed and have a proven safety track record,” he added.
Another dive operator who dabbled in shark diving in the early 2000s was Greg Merren, owner of Divers Supply and former operator of Parrots Landing dive business.
Parrots Landing has since closed, but Mr. Merren still has the chain-mail shark feeding suit he bought for the venture.
“I spent quite a lot of money on it, but they shut me down,” he remembers.
He said clear safety precautions must be followed, but he believes shark diving could still work in Cayman. He believes a lot of public fears around sharks are misplaced.
“People don’t understand the animals. They are very shy,” he said.
Mr. Broadbelt said he believes the government of the day had simply decided it was easier to ban the activity than to regulate it.
“Ultimately, we concluded that government’s view was that it was easier to ban shark diving outright than to try and manage it and risk every single dive shop setting up and running their own feeding frenzy, ad-hoc,” he said.
Mr. Harvey, whose foundation has been tagging and researching sharks in Cayman’s waters for several years, believes the climate may be changing.
He said the shark fishing ban and his recent documentary about sharks in Cayman show that fear is giving way to fascination for many in the Cayman Islands.
“Cayman is more tuned in to this issue than ever,” he said. “People have a lot more concept of the value of a living shark.”
Shark interactions are not without pitfalls.
Mr. Wetherbee said the impact on shark movements is not clear and the risk of sharks associating humans with food has been aired as a concern in other areas.
“Shark dives are bound to drive up the number of divers and so be good for the economy, but they are not without drawbacks,” he added.
The Marine Conservation Law and the new National Conservation Law both ban shark feeding. There is also a regulation accompanying the law which bans facilitating wildlife interaction outside of Stingray City and the sandbar.
“No person swimming, diving, scuba diving, snorkelling or carrying on any similar water activity within an area of Cayman waters, other than a wildlife interaction zone, shall invite, encourage or facilitate wildlife interaction with any marine life,” it states.