Decision a “relief” but controversy remains

Southland’s only shark cage diving operator says it is a “relief” that a recent Supreme Court decision on the future of the industry has enabled the business to continue operation.

Bluff-based Shark Experience runs shark cage diving and sightseeing tours to the Northern Titi Islands and Edwards Islands for six months during the year. It has been in operation since 2010, giving locals and tourists the opportunity to get close with a variety of sharks, including great whites, mako and blue sharks. This is done in a cage, which is lowered into the water at the back of the boat, or through viewing platforms on the tour vessel.

However, last year its future was put in doubt when the Court of Appeal ruled shark cage diving an offence under the Wildlife Act.

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court overturned the decision, giving the company the green light to continue operating when its season opens on December 1.

Nikki Ladd from Shark Experience said while the operation was still able to operate during the court case, the attention that it brought had resulted in a “substantial” effect on their business last season.

She said they were only able to open for one hour a day on the retail side of operations and had a significant drop in visitors compared to previous seasons.

“We can’t seek compensation. It would take a lot of money to do so. I won’t tell you how much it costs to go to Supreme Court but it’s a lot. A smart person will work out that you don’t get rich doing what we do.”

The legal proceedings were brought about after paua diver industry group PauaMAC5 claimed shark cage diving was putting its divers at risk, and that the use of incentive baiting amounted to “hunting or killing” the protected great white shark.

But Mrs Ladd claimed their tours did not put any other operators in the area at risk, and they no longer used any form of bait to attract sharks to the area.

“Last season we did not use incentive baits… going forward it’s the captain’s decision whether he chooses to use incentive baits and he may not choose to.”

She said the sharks had always been in the area and often came to the tour boat out of “curiosity”, meaning they weren’t required to entice them to the boat with bait.

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PauaMAC5 chairman Storm Stanley said Shark Experience was “incorrect” if they believed their practice was legal after the Supreme Court ruling.

He said the court clearly said that it could not make its own ruling on the legality or otherwise of caging, saying the court “stated that such a ruling could only be done by way of a prosecution” and “it affirmed that DOC cannot issue a permit for shark caging”.

“This means that there are no controls on the commercial exploitation of this fully protected species, currently classified as declining… PauaMAC5 reiterates that the cagers are undertaking an activity that causes a hazard to the public, be they paua divers, fishers in dinghies in the area, recreational divers and muttonbirders looking to gather kaimoana from the northern Titi Islands during the muttonbirding season.”

Mr Stanley said PauaMAC5 would be looking to the Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage to instruct her department to “do their job and launch proceedings against anyone undertaking shark cage diving as soon as they receive information that protected great white sharks are being disturbed”.

The debate over the practice has also divided local surf school operators in Southland, with owner and operator of Southland Surf School Jess Terrill disagreeing with the practice, saying she believed shark cage diving was dangerous.

“I also cannot help but think that the point that has been missed in the Supreme Court ruling is the risk to human life, be it a person swimming, kayaking, paua diving or a shark cage tourist… if it were safe, why do they need to use steel cages? And I keep going back to the fact that you cannot entice kiwi for viewing pleasure yet this cage operator is teasing great white sharks for money.”

She said it wasn’t an issue for her surf school as she was based in Riverton, however she wouldn’t want it any closer to the town and said she felt sorry for residents in Stewart Island having it “right in their front yard”.

Meanwhile, Catlins Surf School owner Nick Smart said that while he didn’t oppose shark cage diving, he felt for the residents in Oban, where he said it wasn’t nice for swimming in the area.

“I’m sure the locals would feel safer if the operation was way around back of the island somewhere else.”

Despite the differing viewpoints, Mrs Ladd hoped it would be “business as usual” for Shark Experience heading into the new season.

“I think some things have been damaged. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions, I think it needs to be quite clear about what is the go.”

She said the business was a great drawcard to the town for tourists as well as helping put back into the local community, with the tour operators using mainly Bluff based products as well as a crew of locals.

Bluff was one of only five places in the world where people could go shark cage diving she said, and the experience of being up close to an apex predator was something that many people wanted to experience at least once in their lifetime.

“There’s all sorts of places in the world you can go to to do this but the organisation I work for wants people to come to Bluff. They want people to come for more than 22 minutes and take their photo of the signpost because there are beautiful walkways, there is amazing wildlife.

“New Zealand isn’t known for its wildlife so let’s promote our beautiful wildlife. Yes, we share it with the rest of the world because the ocean is a big place, but they’re there – whether we’re there or not – and the more that we’re out there, the less somebody is going to mess with them.”

This article was originally written for The Advocate. You can read the published version here

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