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Under the glare of publicity over shark attacks this summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission today banned operators of popular ''interactive'' shark dives from using bloody bait to lure the fish so that people can frolic with them.

The commission said the action, which comes only days after two deadly shark attacks off the mid-Atlantic coast, was intended to protect the public. But operators of the shark-viewing excursions characterized it as politically motivated and said it would do little to reduce shark attacks.

Whether based on fear or fact, the commission's 6-to-1 vote to prohibit shark feeding underscores the increasing pressure on politicians and public safety experts to appear to be addressing the problem of shark attacks.

From Virginia to Hawaii, public officials have enacted or are considering various measures to reduce the attacks, but in doing so they face a delicate balancing act between protecting tourism and protecting the public.

On Wednesday, officials in Hawaii closed a stretch of Waikiki Beach after a sighting of three sharks. And in response to a deadly attack in Virginia on Saturday, Gov. James S. Gilmore III appointed a task force to recommend ways to prevent attacks and improve the response to them.

So far, though, the action today by the Florida commission at its meeting on Amelia Island, near Jacksonville, represents the most aggressive effort to reduce the attacks. Agency officials said the measure was necessary in light of the regular reminders this summer of the potential for tragedy when sharks and people collide. Continuing to permit divers to use bait to lure sharks to areas populated with swimmers, surfers and scuba divers was simply inviting danger, the commissioners said.

''The big picture should be the feeding of wild animals,'' said Rodney Barreto, one of the commission members. ''Potentially we could have a big problem if we had a family out there and the sharks came around because they associated it with the feeding.''

The shark excursions are popular with tourists in South Florida, the Florida Keys and the Bahamas, where professional divers take thousands of customers each year into the ocean and lure mostly small sharks to the boat with fish parts. For about $40 apiece, divers and snorkelers can mingle with the sharks and have their pictures taken swimming with them.

But in recent months, as public attention to shark attacks has increased, a growing debate has arisen over the dives. Florida leads the world in attacks with 29 reported so far this year and a record 37 attacks reported last year, according to an annual study conducted by the University of Florida.

Critics argue that luring sharks with pieces of raw fish is as dangerous as feeding black bears in national parks. Robert Dimond, president of the Marine Safety Group, a coalition of conservation groups that led the opposition to shark feeding, said the practice trains sharks to associate boats and people with food, making them more aggressive when they come in contact with swimmers or fishermen.

''Our position is simply that such tours are one of several factors that inherently increase the risk of shark attack on humans,'' said Mr. Dimond, who spoke against the practice before the commission today.

Supporters of the excursions disagreed, arguing that the dives were educational and that they mainly attracted docile nurse sharks, which are three to six feet long and resemble giant catfish. Feeding them, excursion operators say, is no more dangerous than giving carrots to animals at a petting zoo.

They note that none of the shark attacks in Florida have involved people on shark-feeding expeditions, though one woman in the Keys was bitten on the calf last year by a nurse shark after crew members on a boat tossed scraps of fish into the water.

They also say that the commission's action was a result of the publicity the attacks have received and that the members gave in to pressure to appear to be resolving the problem.

At the meeting today, ''there were seven TV cameras in their faces, so they sacrificed us rather than work with us,'' said Spencer Slate, owner of Captain Slate's Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo and president of Marine Life Operators, an industry group.

''They can't go after the fishermen on the beach or people on beach,'' Mr. Slate said, ''so they went after the people they think are expendable. The media frenzy is worse than the 'Jaws' movie now, so they had to make a move.''

Already excursion operators are looking for ways around the feeding ban, which takes effect in November. They say, for instance, that since the commission's ruling bans only using fish parts, they will simply switch to fish oil and scents to attract sharks. And if the new regulations are revised to prohibit using those types of bait, the owners say, they can move their operations three miles off shore, where the commission has no jurisdiction.

To be sure, most people who venture into the water do not do so with the intention of mingling with sharks. And even unintentional encounters remain rare. So far this year, there have been 41 attacks in the United States, two of them fatal. At the current rate, according to George Burgess, director of the shark attack study at the University of Florida, the number of attacks will fall short of the 54 that were reported last year.

Beyond Florida, the attacks this year have prompted officials to look for ways to make coastal waters safer -- or at least make the public more aware of the dangers.

In North Carolina, where an attack killed a man near a beach on Monday and critically injured his girlfriend, National Park Service rangers are now passing out literature to swimmers and sunbathers about precautions to take in the water.

In South Carolina, Gov. Jim Hodges ordered state officials to review procedures for dealing with shark incidents.

''We must be prepared to protect our citizens as well as the millions that visit our coast each year,'' Governor Hodges wrote in a letter to Paul Sandifer, director of the state Department of Natural Resources. He ordered a report within 30 days.

''We've turned the governor's request to our marine resources division,'' Mr. Sandifer said today.

In Virginia, where a 10-year-old boy was mauled to death Saturday, John Paul Woodley Jr., the state Natural Resources secretary, who is heading up the governor's task force there, said he was contacting other states and countries to determine what sorts of precautionary measures are in use elsewhere. He said information about various approaches has already begun to pour in from as far away as Australia.

''I got an e-mail from an official there today offering to share information on measures they've taken.'' Mr. Woodley said. ''They have nets and baited hooks to reduce the number of predator sharks in bathing areas. I'm interested in looking at what they're doing.''

In Hawaii on Wednesday, officials closed a section of the state's most famous tourist spot, Waikiki Beach, after a maid standing on a hotel balcony spotted three sharks about 100 yards offshore. Police confirmed the sighting and ordered swimmers out of the water.

''The beach has been closed for jellyfish before but I can't remember for sharks,'' said Richard Kahihikolo, who has taught tourists how to surf on Waikiki Beach for 40 years.

Just how far the states should go in regulating water activity is a matter of debate even among the officials working to decrease shark attacks. At the Florida fish and wildlife commission meeting, for example, the lone board member who voted against the feeding ban, H. A. Huffman, said the measure would be an unnecessary blow to tourism.

Lisa Daibes of Edgewater, N.J., a frequent visitor to Florida who has been going on shark-feeding excursions for more than two years, is a case in point. Reached at home, she said she would probably change her vacation plans because of the ruling.

''I was planning on going down there again soon and do more, but I guess it won't happen,'' Ms. Daibes said. ''I have nieces and nephews who wanted to feed the sharks. Now they'll have to settle for seeing them in an aquarium instead of feeding them in their natural habitat.''

Ms. Daibes said she had never feared for her life while swimming with the sharks and wondered what all the fuss was about.

''So are they trying to say that because we feed sharks in South Florida, these same sharks are going to Virginia to attack people?'' she asked. ''It's simply ridiculous.''

Beyond the shark excursions, Mr. Huffman said, trying to regulate water activity in deference to sharks sends the message that other water sports would also have to be more tightly controlled.

''Do we want to regulate everything we do in life?'' he asked. ''It's not over yet. Do we want to ban fishing?''

Source Citation
Canedy, Dana. "Florida curbs the operators of popular shark excursions. (dive trips to feed sharks)." New York Times 7 Sept. 2001: A1(N); A1(L). Academic OneFile. Web. 6 July 2010.
Document URL

Gale Document Number:A77929767

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