From the distant and isolated Faroe Islands, midway between Iceland and Norway, Paua MAC5 Chairman Storm Stanley couldn’t contain his excitement, despite no working phone. His emails expressed his utter relief at the decision.
And, why wouldn’t he? New Zealand’s paua divers have been attempting to get shark cage diving shut down for years, and it is not because they are anti-business. It is because the activity poses such a risk to their divers that they won’t even put them in the water.
There are two commercial cage diving companies operating around the Titi islands, a cluster of small islands located a short distance off the Stewart Island mainland. The islands are a rich paua source, only harvested by free dive and never with tanks, but also a rich source of food, in the way of seals, for the Great White shark. During the summer months the Titi Islands are home to a large population of seals and, in turn, attract a large population of Great White sharks.
These are monster predators, growing up to six metres in length. They are cautious beasts, known to circle and identify prey before attacking. Despite the similarities between a seal and a wetsuit-clad paua diver, there have been no attacks on paua divers for 20 years but two minor attacks on others have been recorded.
But the advent of shark cage diving changed all that, because it changed the sharks’ behaviour.
Tourists pay good money to be up close and personal with a Great White shark. From $500 to over $600 per person, depending on whether you have previous dive experience.
Shark cage tourism experiences will see you lowered into the sea in a cage while the operators lure the Great White sharks close. They do this by spreading tuna berley, which attracts the sharks’ interest and then they use tuna meat bait to bring them right up to the cage.
Paua Industry Council chief executive, Jeremy Cooper, says the practise began in 2008 and over time has changed the behaviour of the sharks. He says they now associate human behaviour with food – and that is deadly. He says even the sound of a boat motor will now bring the sharks circling.
He says a recent incident saw divers arrive in a bay and within a very short time they have had sharks targeting the boat. Without provocation, one launched itself onto the vessel and attacked the back pontoon.
This week’s judgement in the Court of Appeal case decided two important issues. Whether the Department of Conservation, which is granting permits for shark cage diving under Section 63a of the Wildlife Act, is legally permitted to do so, and whether shark cage diving is actually an offence under that same Act.
In both instances the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the paua divers and therefore anyone else who may be exposed to increased risk created by this activity. The Director General of Conservation can no longer grant permits for cage diving and shark cage diving is now ruled an offence under section 63A of the Wildlife Act.
What this means is an immediate halt to all shark cage diving off Stewart Island and elsewhere.
Commentary from Tourism Industry Aotearoa, formerly the Tourism Industry Association, which criticised the judgement is unhelpful. While we agree that the 65 year old Wildlife Act could do with an overhaul, we were not prepared to put people’s lives at risk while we waited. Court action is never a first priority. The fishermen who make their living from paua did not choose this option lightly. Would Tourism Industry Aotearoa be as quick to dismiss concerns if human safety was at risk in any other adventure tourism operation?
The National Party spokesperson for Conservation, Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie, has also acknowledged her concerns with a Member’s Bill that aims to regulate the shark cage diving industry. If passed, it would introduce geographic limits to where shark cage diving could operate, including minimum distances from beaches and other human activity. Coincidentally, Dowie's Bill was drawn from the Members' Ballot in parliament yesterday.
Helen Cave who owns the South Sea Hotel at Stewart Island’s Half Moon Bay is pleased the practise has been banned, for now. In 2015 she managed to get 768 people to sign a petition to parliament asking that all shark cage diving on Stewart Island be stopped immediately and permanently. Helen has lived on Stewart Island for fifty years and says the fishermen didn’t see the sharks. The fishermen went about their business and their sharks went about theirs. She pointed out that it takes about seven minutes for the sharks to get from the cage diving area to where her grandchildren are swimming.
So, yes, it’s personal.