Diving in shark cages to be regulated

Stewart Island shark cage dive operators will now be regulated as a turf war breaks out between the industry and Stewart Islanders, who fear their lives are being put at greater risk.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith said a permit system under the Wildlife Act was needed to ensure cage diving was done responsibly.

Tension within the small Stewart Island community over concerns about great white sharks had developed to the point where regulation was necessary, Dr Smith said.

"There are reports of people deliberately killing the great whites even though they are a protected species. The solution lies in tightening the rules around shark tourism operators and taking a firm approach against anybody deliberately killing these sharks," he said.

About 100 great white sharks roam Foveaux Strait each year between December and June to feed off the fur seal breeding colony.

During the past few years, fledgling tourism businesses had developed in an environment lacking appropriate controls, Dr Smith said.

Both Stewart Island shark cage diving operators have welcomed the rules.

Shark Dive NZ director Peter Scott said he had been asking for permits for about five years to regulate the industry and the move would also ensure the safety of the sharks, which was a priority for him.

However, he believed the permits would do nothing to calm the angst and animosity on Stewart Island.

There was no scientific evidence to show there was any increase in shark numbers as a result of cage diving but there had been an explosion in the seal population, which was a major food source for sharks.

Fishing industry boats were also dumping offal over the side, he said.

Mr Scott believed cage operators could coexist with divers and fishermen. The unwritten rule was if there were divers in the area, he would not put a cage down.

Mike Haines, of Shark Experience, said cage diving was bringing money into the community but it had been a bit of a sticking point and the community needed to look "outside the square".

"We should consider a dedicated island, sticking to one site for diving."

Southland District Council Stewart Island councillor Bruce Ford said there were mixed feelings in the community.

Knowing shark divers would be closely monitored would please some but the costs associated with permits may discourage operators, he said.

Great white shark expert Clinton Duffy said sharks were going to Stewart Island from thousands of kilometres away - making directed trips for a specific purpose, not because of cage diving.

Commercial paua diver Riki Everest said since diving could not be banned, regulating it was the next best option as long as the community had a say in developing the regulation.

"If they can maybe cage dive without the feeding, I guess that's acceptable and as long as there's [community-based] rules of conduct."

Commercial and recreational fishermen also had to be more careful where they dumped their offal, he said.


The Southland Times