A Case for Regulation of the Feeding of Fishes and Other Marine Wildlife by Divers and Snorkelers

A Case for Regulation of the Feeding of Fishes and Other Marine Wildlife by Divers and Snorkelers

by Bill Alevizon, Ph.D.,
Gainesville, Florida.
July 2000


This paper summarizes available information supporting the proposed rule of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC), that the feeding of fishes and other marine wildlife by divers and snorkelers should be prohibited in State waters. This sensible measure would appear prudent if we are to properly protect Florida’s coastal marine wildlife and their habitats, as well as the ever-increasing number of people that interact with both. This information presented in this paper is intended to inform the ongoing deliberations of the FFWCC as it further considers regulation of the referred activity.

A. General Considerations: A Century of Interaction – What have We Learned About the Effects of Human Handouts on Wildlife?

The feeding of wild vertebrate animals by humans has been shown, through long experience in a wide variety of contexts and environments, to generally lead to three specific categories of problems. These became increasingly evident to wildlife managers throughout the U.S. during the latter half of the 20th century – surfacing again and again with virtually every form of “fed” vertebrate animal studied in this regard, including bears, deer, alligators, raccoons, skunks, and most recently marine mammals, particularly dolphins. These problems involve:

(1) Health problems for the animals fed: Feeding typically disrupts and alters normal foraging/feeding patterns, and may lead to a lessened ability to find/capture natural foods, and/or create a lasting reliance on people (Blount 1998; Wilkinson 1997). Also, animals are often fed items that they are not equipped to digest or process properly, including a wide variety of so-called “junk foods”. Finally, “fed” wild animals also tend to lose their natural wariness of humans and their devices, putting them at greatly increased risk from accidental strikes or entanglement with human devices (i.e., cars, boats, propellers, nets/fishing gear, etc.) and from poachers or hunters. The magnitude of such problems for terrestrial wildlife recently prompted a summary warning to visitors to Canada’s national parks: “A fed animal is a dead animal“.

(2) Disruption of natural ecological processes and biological communities: The continued feeding of wildlife in an area has environmental ramifications that extend well beyond direct threats to individual “fed” animals; fundamental attributes and processes of the ecosystems that support them are also being affected. The U.S. National Park Service (1975) stated the problem succinctly: “Unnatural conditions occur if supplemental food is provided to wild animals. This practice changes the natural distribution and behavior of fed species and the way in which their populations are regulated.

(3) Increased risk to people from wildlife attack: It has been firmly established that wildlife feeding often places people at increased risk of animal attack. Nationwide, hundreds of people are injured every year in this way (Wilkinson 1997), and some are killed. Fed alligators have become an increasing threat to nearby humans in some parts of Florida, leading to a statewide ban on such activities. In the marine environment, dozens of bites from fed dolphins have been reported since dolphin-feeding cruises became popular in the Gulf of Mexico some years ago (NOAA 1992). Numerous injuries to both dolphins and humans led the National Marine Fisheries Service to ban dolphin-feeding cruises in 1991, backed by sufficient documentation to resist a legal challenge in Federal court several years later (NOAA 1992; NMFS 1994).

For these reasons, the feeding of wildlife – including fishes – has been banned in virtually all of our National Parks (including our underwater versions in Biscayne Bay, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands), as well as in many other protected areas throughout the U.S. and much of the world.

B. The Case for Regulating the Feeding of Marine Fishes

While our practical experience with the regular feeding (by humans) of populations of wild land animals goes back more than a century, widespread public use of scuba and snorkeling gear, and associated fish feeding by divers/snorkelers, are relatively new phenomena; thus there is considerably less of an “historical record” on the effects of feeding fishes than with terrestrial animals.

Nonetheless, available evidence strongly suggests that the very same problems that have persistently arisen from the regular hand-feeding of land animals are now being expressed in fed fishes as well, a finding that would come as no surprise to most professional biologists. After all, sharks and most other “fed” reef fishes are – like bears, deer, raccoons, and dolphins – opportunistic feeders, and therefore would reasonably be expected to respond to human handouts in much the same manner, and suffer much the same consequences, as their more well-studied terrestrial relatives

Some of the clearest and more readily documented evidence and information substantiating the notion that feeding wild fishes is an ill-advised activity is summarized below:

1. Harm to “fed” fishes: Experts on fish nutrition point out that many of the foods (hot dogs, baloney, cheese-in-a-can, bread, pretzels, potato chips, etc ) commonly fed to fishes by divers and snorkelers will predictably result in health problems for these animals, which do not naturally encounter such substances. As fish nutritionist Dr. David Ford (cited in Perrine 1989) pointed out, “Fish cannot handle hard fats..the fish packs the hard fats into the organs of its body with serious consequences to its health�excess carbohydrates�are not suitable for fish“. Even presumably “natural” foods sometimes prove harmful or lethal to marine animals. Testimony presented in Federal court attributed the deaths of human-fed wild dolphins to bacteria of a type frequently associated with spoiled fish (NMFS 1994). Increased vulnerability to underwater hunters and poachers presents a particularly serious threat for “fed” fishes – particularly to certain of the larger predatory species such as groupers and snappers – the very kinds of reef fishes most in need of protection today. The author personally knows of a number of locations where “tamed” (by feeding) reef fish have been killed in this way.

2. Ecological Disruption of Marine Communities: By changing feeding behavior and the types of foods taken and time and place of feeding in a variety of fish species, sustained fish feeding at a particular site alters natural food pathways and energy flow within the community – fundamental ecosystem processes – with unpredictable long-term consequences for the local marine ecosystem as a whole. In particular, shark feeding operations, which concentrate highly unnatural numbers of these large, fish-eating predators in a relatively small area (Burgess 1998), must ultimately unnaturally alter nearby fish populations, which must supply the abnormally large shark aggregations with the bulk of their food supply.

Changes in behavior as well as the local distribution/abundance patterns of fishes around regular feeding sites have been reported by a number of professional marine biologists, to wit:

  • “Feeding of fish by divers is the most likely major cause of changes in the behavior of P. auratus and P. colias, which actively follow divers” (Cole 1994)
  • “Ecological disruption �is of equal concern in the shallow water shark feeding areas, where feeding operations are altering the natural system�it is clear that the concentrations of sharks and bony fishes at feeding sites are unnatural” (Burgess 1998)
  • “All over the world I have seen changes in fish habits, populations and health, largely due to human intruders feeding them unnatural foods” (Darling, Cited in Perrine 1989)
  • “fish feeding has a negative effect on fish populations over a short period of time�the aggressive species of fish within the (community) tend to dominate over other fish species, which may result in the decline of non-aggressive species�it is strongly recommended that people discontinue fish feeding activities” (Hultquist 1997)

3. Increased Danger to People in the Sea: There are numerous documented reports of serious injuries to divers, snorkelers and nearby swimmers directly attributable to fish feeding activities. Particularly troubling today, because of the increasing number of amateurs trying fish-feeding for themselves, are the increasing number of documented cases in which novices lost parts of hands and suffered other serious wounds while attempting to emulate the “skills” of seasoned divemasters. Common injuries to those attempting to feed fish, or visiting areas where feeding is regularly practiced, include severe lacerations of faces, hands, arms and torsos, and loss of fingers (Perrine 1989). The fishes involved in the most serious incidents are typically sharks, morays, groupers, and barracuda.

Because it has been repeatedly asserted, in the context of the current FFWCC proceedings, that such records are virtually non-existent, it is useful here to cite at least a few of the numerous examples that have been reported:

  • “a tourist diving at a feeding site on a non-feeding day was bitten on the head by a charcharhinid shark” (Burgess 1998)
  • “In 1987�a diver…no longer carrying any fish�was watching�as a spotted moray was fed. Another (spotted moray) swam over her shoulder from behind and bit her face twice, severely ripping her lips and requiring reconstructive surgery”. (Perrine 1989)
  • “Feeding�has changed the (fishes) behavior. Often the cod become agitated during feeding, bumping divers and fighting each other for food scraps. It was especially at that time that divers had their hands bitten” (Quinn and Kojis 1990).
  • “An autopsy on the body in Cairns found a bump on his head and small punctures in his skin�the coroner concluded that he was drowned by a (potato) cod�it was hypothesized that while snorkeling the cod grabbed him and held him under long enough to drown” (Quinn and Kojis 1990).
  • “I have been bitten severely on the ear by a grouper who expected a handout, and I know of many other such incidents” (Darling, cited in Perrine 1989)

Shark-feeding operations are particularly worrisome in this regard, not only for nearby divers but for virtually anyone in the ocean within the general vicinity of the feeding site, including swimmers at nearby beaches. This is because in contrast to most reef fishes, sharks have a very large “home range” and normally cover far greater distances in a daily search for food. These dangers are only slowly becoming apparent, despite warnings from the experts.

Here are a few documented responses of some well-recognized shark experts who see shark-feeding dives as presenting increased danger to people engaged in such activities, or other humans using nearby swimming or surfing areas:

  • A few years ago members of the American Elasmobranch Society – unquestionably the most prestigious body of shark experts in North America – were asked, “In regard to shark diving operations which involve regular baiting, is there a cause for concern (re; shark attack) if such…operations are conducted relatively close to bathing or surfing beaches?” More than 90% of those responding believed that the danger was real, at least under the “right” circumstances.
  • Dr. George Burgess, a shark expert who maintains the University of Florida’s shark attack file – one of the most comprehensive such resources in the world – recently voiced grave concerns for the safety of those participating in shark-feeding dives. Says Burgess, ” shark attack rate is profoundly influenced by the concentrations of sharks and humans occupying the water at the same time. Increases in either generally result in an increased probability of an attack” (Burgess 1998). Also, according to Dr. Burgess, the whole practice is inherently unsound from a diver-safety perspective, and numerous attacks have already occurred in association with these operations – mainly to shark handlers but in at least several cases to tourists (ENN 1998).
  • “These sharks now expect and associate divers with food, approaching them with no fear and in unexpected patterns. I firmly believe that this deliberate feeding of sharks for recreational observation will only increase the incidence of shark attacks on divers in areas where it is practiced.” (Gouin, cited in Perrine 1989)
  • it is vital that such initiatives (referring to regulation of shark diving activities) are extended to other countries as a matter of urgency, and are strictly enforced” (Fowler 1998)

4. Decreased enjoyment of the resource by other divers: In addition to safety concerns, a major objection to fish feeding noted by many experienced divers is that this activity, when continued in an area for some time, compromises the quality of the sport diving experience for others visiting the area.

Divers frequently report noting distinct changes in the behaviors of many reef fishes, including the most common problem in which normally peaceful – even shy and reclusive species – rush out of hiding as divers enter the water, aggressively approaching them in search of a handout. Thus, visitors to popular diving areas throughout the world are increasingly being denied that which they came to see – marine life behavior and environments in any semblance of a natural state.

Annoying swarms of “fed” yellowtail snapper, chubs and sergeant majors have now become commonplace “pests” on many of the most popular reefs in the Florida Keys and other popular dive destinations, leading to painful bites and in some cases minor injuries to earlobes;

        "the fish soon learned that they had to attack any 
        diver with bread on sight, or they would miss out.  
        Sergent majors became known as 'Cayman piranhas' and 
        divers began referring to "'attack yellowtails' which 
        swarmed them, biting, blocking faceplates and making 
        underwater photography next to impossible"
        (Perrine 1989).

Minor injury and “nuisance” incidents generally go unreported, but appear to be far more common in recent years, corresponding to an increase in feeding activities. At the February meeting of the FFWCC, several Commissioners related their own personal negative encounters with aggressive reef fishes conditioned by feeding. The author of this paper, a professional marine ecologist specializing in the study of Caribbean reef fish communities, has never encountered this type of fish behavior in almost 30 years of research diving at a wide variety of remote Caribbean reefs; it is only where fish feeding is commonly engaged that such unnatural behaviors are manifested.

The author recently (this summer) personally witnessed such altered and annoying behavior at a popular dive site in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. While waiting at the surface to board our dive boat, the author’s dive buddy was suddenly and without warning rushed and bitten on the finger by one of the hundreds of “beggars” swarming around a particular mooring buoy, where it was obvious from the unnatural concentration of reef fishes near the surface, and from their atypically aggressive behaviors, that the fish were accustomed to being regularly fed. The attack was initiated when the diver (a professional underwater photographer) simply turned his hand upright with thumb to forefinger to check his dive watch – a pose closely resembling the pro-offering of food. He was fortunate that it was one of the chubs – rather than the barracuda in their midst – that decided to attack. Another diver, in a similar situation at a nearby dive site in the Keys years earlier, had not been so lucky:

        "When she used her index finger to point out a 
        feature on the reef to a group of divers, a barracuda 
        that had become accustomed to taking bait from divers' 
        hands zipped in and neatly sliced the finger open"
        (Perrine 1989)

C. Some Notable Precedents for the Prohibition/Regulation of Diver Feeding of Marine Fishes

Wild fish feeding remains for the most part an entirely unregulated activity in most U.S. coastal waters. However, there are some notable examples of situations in which such activity is now prohibited or strictly regulated:

  • Based upon scientific findings (Hawaii DLNR 1993) as well as public opinion, the State of Hawaii has already passed legislation banning the feeding of reef fishes at some locations, and dialog continues that may eventually lead to extending that ban to other areas
  • The U.S. National Park Service maintains a total ban on feeding of fishes in all of its marine parks, including those in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Biscayne Bay
  • The Great Barrier Reef Authority (Australia) presently strictly regulates fish feeding on the GBR through a strict permitting system, involving tight restrictions on number of permits issued and qualification/training of permittees, location of feeding sites, frequency of feeding, types of foods allowed, and mandatory written and oral warnings (of the dangers) to “customers”. The GBRA has specifically reserved the right to entirely prohibit feeding in the future.


This paper has presented evidence and information in support of the FFWCC’s February 2000 decision to prohibit the underwater feeding of sharks and other marine wildlife in Florida waters. The decision appears to be the most prudent course of action, and is backed by a preponderance of scientific evidence, expert opinion of leading state and national marine conservation groups, a century of cumulative experience of wildlife managers dealing with the referred activity in similar contexts, and precedents established by other regulatory agencies at home and abroad. The FFWCC would be wise to proactively regulate this inherently ill-advised activity in the interest of marine conservation and public safety before the practice reaps more costly human and environmental losses.

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