FLORIDA commission votes to ban dives where tourists swim with sharks; food used as lure

Friday, September 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. (AP) _ After a summer of highly publicized shark attacks, Florida officials voted to ban all shark-feeding, saying it could be teaching sharks to seek out people.

The target of the ban is ``interactive'' shark tours that use cut-up fish to lure sharks so scuba-diving tourists can swim with them.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had been considering rules to regulate such shark-feeding dives, but instead voted 6-1 Thursday for a total ban. It could become law after a final vote in November.

Tour operators were outraged and threatened legal action if the ban goes through.

They argued that officials had no evidence to prove the shark-feeding dives weren't safe and said none of their tourists had ever been bitten. But several commissioners expressed fear that by feeding sharks, the sharks could be conditioned to associate humans with food.

``You don't feed any of them. They're wild animals,'' said Robert Dimond, president of the Marine Safety Group of Deerfield Beach, a proponent of a ban. ``We are talking about predators with teeth that can tear off people's arms.''

The ban on anyone feeding sharks while in the water would also extend to other marine animals, including manatees, barracudas, moray eels and manta rays. Federal rules already prohibit feeding dolphins in the wild.

``You have systematically dismantled fish feeding in the state of Florida,'' complained Jeff Torode, president of the South Florida Diving Headquarters in Pompano Beach.

Thursday's meeting came as national attention has been focused on more than 40 shark attacks in U.S. coastal waters this year, including 29 in Florida.

On Saturday in Virginia Beach, Va., a 10-year-old boy was fatally mauled in the surf. Two days later, a shark killed a man and gravely injured his girlfriend off a North Carolina beach. Eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast's arm was ripped off by a shark as he waded in the surf off Florida's Gulf Coast in July. The boy's limb was reattached but he remains in a light coma.

In recent years, according to the International Shark File, there have been 15 attacks on shark-feeding divers and eight on professional photographers who used bait to attract sharks.

Commission Chairman David Meehan said the commission had been discussing rules against shark-feeding tours for over a year.

But dive operators were caught off guard by the ban.

They had objected to proposals that would prohibit hand-feeding sharks, require the tours to stay a mile offshore and limit their feeding only to docile nurse sharks. Some said the regulations would force them out of business.

On Thursday, they asked for additional time to negotiate an agreement, but the commission refused a delay.

``We will take any legal means we can, including going after the commission staff,'' said Bob L. Harris, an attorney representing the companies offering shark-feeding dives.

Before the rule goes into effect, the commission must hold another public hearing. It was scheduled for November in Key Largo, where one of the state's four shark-feeding dive operators is based.

Prior to the vote, the commission heard from both sides of the debate.

George Burgess, who runs the International Shark File at the University of Florida, and Erich Ritter, a shark researcher from Princeton, N.J., both told commissioners the recent attacks had no connection to shark feeding dives.

But Howard White, with the Humane Society, said feeding the sharks was dangerous to them and to people.

``The lifeblood of Florida is tourism, and this has been the summer of the shark,'' he said.