A female sharks passes a shark dive tour boat off Gansbaai yesterday(thur). Tour operators have come under fire for mishandling sharks, but they contest this and say the conservation benefit is massive. December 23 2010 Photo by Michael Walker

The West Australian government has taken pre-emptive measures to ban shark cage diving operations after four fatal shark attacks in the region since September.

This comes after heated debate, both in Australia and SA, about the link between attacks and chumming, which is used to attract sharks to the boats.

Reacting to the ban yesterday, some local shark cage diving operators blasted the move, while a marine biologist said various studies had not proved a link between chumming and shark attacks.

Australian newspapers reported this week that West Australian Fisheries Minister Norman Moore said he did not want tourist activities set up that would attract sharks and change their normal behaviour.

Research done by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) at shark cage diving sites in South Australia had found that chumming kept sharks in an area for longer, but did not prove a link between chumming and attacks on humans.

Norman acknowledged that the study did not determine the long-term effects on shark behaviour, but said he would prefer not to take risks until more was known.

Shark cage diving has never been done along Australia’s west coast.

Brian McFarlane, operator and owner of Great White Shark Tours in Gansbaai, said the West Australian authorities were “overreacting”.

“There is definitely no point in banning diving. It has been proved over and over again that shark cage diving is not to the detriment of divers or people using the beaches.”

He said that while they used chumming to attract sharks to the boat, it had never been proved that this changed sharks’ behaviour.

“We do not reward sharks with food. People always want to blame something or someone, but the industry has been operating in Gansbaai for 18 years and there has never been an incident. Thousands of people surf and swim along our shores and the sharks are there as they have always been,” McFarlane said.

Another operator in Gansbaai, Wilfred Chivell, said: “Their decision is not a well-informed one. There is no link between chumming and attacks. I am very proud of the way we are handling the issue locally because these are incredible animals and accidents do happen. Sharks are in their natural habitat as they always have been. I don’t believe there is any change in shark behaviour; chumming has nothing to do with attacks.”

Alison Towner, a marine biologist for the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, said: “Cage diving sites in South Australia and SA hold the similarity that they are focused on a seal colony – a natural aggregation area for great white sharks.

“It is understandable that the Australian authorities are concerned with the high attack rate, but West Australia has never had cage diving operations and they’ve still had attacks. I think a more proactive approach would be to understand the movement of sharks properly by doing more research before making policy decisions.”

Towner, who has been researching shark movements for five years, said: “There is still no scientific link between the attacks and chumming. Sharks move around extensively and we need to have a better understanding of their movements.”

Veteran Cape Town surfer Paul Botha said: “Chumming is not the issue when it comes to diving because the operators are in areas where there is a huge aggregation of sharks.

“However, the jury is still out on whether shark cage diving affects shark behaviour because they are attracted by the chum and they come in close proximity to humans and later, when they come in shore where people are surfing and swimming, they may become more inquisitive and it might well change their behaviour.

“However, I don’t think chumming has anything to do with it.”

Alison Kock, a local scientist and research manager for Shark Spotters who conducted a study around the False Bay area similar to the CSIRO one, said local research did not find an increased risk to water users.

In SA in April, a heated chumming row erupted after the death of bodyboarder David Lilienfeld, 20, who was attacked by a great white shark while surfing at a popular surf break at Kogel Bay. - Cape Times