Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Oahu Shark Diving Debate Continues: with far-reaching implications

A few months ago I posted my views on a growing controversy over shark ecotourism operations at the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. Due to a poorly planned roll-out of a new shark diving operation, there has developed a considerable backlash that has not abated and has generated calls from Hawaiian legislators to completely outlaw the practice.

There have been many news articles, and responses from pro-shark groups. Here are a few:
In building a case against shark ecotourism, the opponents have waged a campaign worthy of the most sly and ruthless political strategist. Appealing to fear (sharks will put people on their menu), conservation (shark diving will disrupt marine ecosystems), and cultural heritage (Hawaiian folklore regards sharks as gods), the anti-shark diving faction has fired one salvo after another, even though each argument can be analyzed, argued, and in many cases, rebutted with hard research data.

This is a classic case of the need for crisis management communications, but unfortunately it appears that the Oahu shark diving operators have taken a low-key, let's-wait-for-things-to-cool-down approach that is not working in their favor. But these are small business operations and the level of sophistication required to address their opponents effectively apparently is just not there.

The ramifications of what could ultimately transpire in Hawaii - a shark diving ban - could ripple throughout the shark ecotourism industry, impacting other sites that benefit from tourism dollars, growing conservation awareness regarding sharks, and even shark protection from poaching through volunteer vigilance by the shark ecotourism boats.

While shark diving in many areas of the world is experiencing a transformation from a thrill-seeking activity to a more conservation and research-oriented ecotourism experience, the industry is still paying the price in public perception for its early years as an adrenaline rush experience only for the brave or fool-hardy adventurer.

I still believe responsible shark ecotourism has its place right alongside other ecotourism
activities. Each site, worldwide, must be carefully examined as to its impact on the community (tourism dollars, risk to non-participants); its effect on the ecosystem (working with sharks that are already established in the area, as opposed to altering any existing biodispersion pattern); its safety protocols (for sharks and divers alike); and its relationship with research, conservation, and educational organizations that can benefit and support the effort.

And there must be an aggressive effort to combat the misconceptions and fallacious arguments often used by the opponents. This is where the shark ecotourism industry shows a glaring
weakness. I once suggested the need for an international organization for shark ecotourism operators, as I saw a parallel situation in the 1950s with the birth and rise of the NHRA in the U.S. to control hot rodders and turn a perceived reckless activity into a responsible and safe one. Responsible, forward-thinking auto enthusiasts embraced the organization and those who chose not to participate became outsiders who faced extinction, ostracized by the community.

An organized shark ecotourism association that could aggressively position itself with the facts, show responsible leadership, and address opposition groups with a unified voice - that could very well be what's needed at this point. But, alas, I was told by some in the know, that the "industry" is made up of small businessmen and women who, perhaps understandably, are more focused on self-interests and would not be interested in dealing with the big picture.

And so, like anchovies surrounded by hungry blue sharks, they are being picked off one by one. And an opportunity for responsible enlightenment regarding shark conservation is being lost.

No comments: