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Hawaii starts to take the bite out of shark tours

THREE women donned scuba masks and jumped into the waters off Oahu's North Shore in Hawaii, floating inside a submerged cage as about a dozen sharks glided toward bloody fish scraps tossed into the water by a tour company.

Tourist Kim Duniec said the experience of coming eye-to-eye with sharks was exhilarating. "Their eyes were scary, but they were still graceful, absolutely beautiful," the Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, woman said.

Shark tours like this have become a popular visitor attraction in Hawaii, but a movement is gaining momentum to shut them down.

Some native Hawaiians consider sharks to be ancestral gods and view feeding them for entertainment to be disrespectful of their culture.

Surfers and environmentalists fear the tours will teach sharks to associate people with food - leading to an increase in attacks - while disrupting the ocean's ecological balance.

Federal fisheries regulators, meanwhile, are investigating the tours on the grounds that they are illegally feeding sharks.

The anti-shark tour movement ignited when residents noticed a large metal cage mounted on a boat at a marina in front of a popular Hawaii Kai restaurant in March.

They remembered Oahu's two shark tours used similar contraptions on the North Shore. The location of the tours helped fuel the opposition - Hawaii Kai is an affluent community on the other side of Oahu.

Within weeks, some 400 residents overwhelmingly hostile to shark tours jammed a local elementary school cafeteria for a town hall meeting. State lawmakers left vowing to draft legislation to shut down the tours.

State and federal regulators asked those present to report suspected violations of shark feeding rules. The shark tour on Hawaii Kai soon shut down, but the others remain.

Randy Honebrink, a shark expert with Hawaii's Aquatic Resources Division, said the state has always opposed the tours out of the concern they may prompt sharks to start linking humans with food.

But broader potential environmental hazards exist since sharks sit at the top of the food chain.

George Burgess, a University of Florida shark researcher, said shark populations are likely to increase in areas where tours feed sharks daily. An inflated shark population might consume more prey, depleting other marine life, Burgess said.


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