Given the chance to jump in a cage and swim with sharks, watching them approach from the ocean depths just below your pruning toes, would you? If you answered “yes,” you’ll have to go to Oahu, because shark tours won’t make it to Maui any time soon.
On August 6, a recommendation to pass a bill banning shark tour operations in Maui County was passed unanimously by the County Council Economic Development, Agriculture and Recreation Committee. The ordinance, introduced by Councilmember Wayne Nishiki, would prevent “the collection, distribution, marketing, or advertising of tickets…or other business activity…to venture into ocean waters to feed or otherwise attract and view sharks for entertainment.”
Shark tours as they exist on Oahu have not been launched in Maui County. Council Chair Jo Anne Johnson said in a recent interview that it’s better to be proactive now rather than reactive later. Other jurisdictions may find shark tours OK, but they don’t fit on Maui, she said.
Based on testimony at the August 6 meeting, shark tours have little support. Public testifiers and officials spoke vehemently in favor of the ordinance, saying shark tour operations threaten public safety and marine life and are insensitive to Hawaiian culture.
Testifier Gordon Cockett, who has lived on Maui all of his 78 years, said shark tours concern him because the mano hold cultural significance and are aumakua (guiding spirits) for many Hawaiian families. “To use [sharks] as entertainment for newcomers is a tragedy,” he said.
But what about dive tours that frequently encounter, and incidentally “view,” sharks? In her testimony to the council on behalf of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council (MNMRC), Rene Umberger supported the bill but asked for clarification on its language. The bill prohibits the feeding and viewing of sharks. But does that mean viewing in association with feeding, asked Umberger, who has conducted about 10,000 scuba dive tours since 1983, some of which have encountered sharks.
Councilmember Sol Kaho‘ohalahala questioned whether such tours truly experienced “chance encounters” or were pursuing the viewing of sharks. Predicting where sharks are most likely to be naturally is the same as pursuing, he said.
“I think of pursuit as chasing,” Umberger said in a recent interview. “Our goal is to observe the animals [naturally]. To do that you have to be calm and respectful and especially non-threatening.” Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. told the Council that even looking for sharks as part of an organized tour alters their behavior. Johnson echoed that concern. “Anytime that you enter, in my view, any ocean environment you are an invader,” she said.
A study by the University of Hawaii published in July suggested that shark tours on Oahu aren’t causing danger to either humans or the sharks’ habitat. But Nishiki read aloud to the Council from two articles documenting shark attacks off the coasts of Florida and South Africa that blame shark tours for causing sharks to associate humans with food.
Reiterating that MNMRC is behind the bill, Umberger said she thinks a lot of people are afraid of sharks, and equate that fear with respect. “I’m not afraid of sharks,” she said. “I think once you’ve spent time with them underwater it’s a different relationship.” Maui Time Weekly, Katie Blanksma