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Ian and Pip Wilson have a huge vested interest in both tourism and paua industries on Stewart Island.

Jess Kany, editor of Stewart Island News. Edward Island can be seen in the background.

Zane Smith, 13th generation islander and commercial paua diver.


Monday 20 July 2015

When Stormalong Stanley appeared before a parliamentary select committee last December he got immediate attention from members of Parliament. The Wildlife Act protects great white sharks but who protects paua divers? he asked. He told the cross party panel of MPs making up the Transport and Industrial Relations select committee hearing submissions on the Health and Safety Reform Bill the operations of shark dive operators on Stewart Island were endangering commercial paua divers.

To illustrate his point he circulated a screen grab from a You Tube video shot by a tourist in a shark cage showing a seal-like dummy used to lure great whites to the boat. The MPs agreed with Stanley's contention the dummy also resembled a wetsuited diver. The unregulated shark dive business emerged in 2008, with operators luring great whites, which were granted fully protected status the year before, to their boats with baits, burley and dummies.

Stewart Islanders fear this activity is conditioning the big sharks to come to boats and claim they are becoming more common and more aggressive. While there was only one fearsome predator haunting the waters of Amity Island on America's Atlantic coast in the fictional Jaws, there are as many as at least 25 in Stewart Island's summer waters.

The Department of Conservation website warns: "Their (great whites) large size, habit of feeding on large prey such as marine mammals and their propensity to investigate objects floating at the surface by biting them makes shark attack a potential risk for anyone swimming, diving, surfing or operating a small vessel (such as a kayak) in areas frequented by white sharks."

Stanley, chair of both PauaMAC 5 that encompasses southern New Zealand and the overall Paua Industry Council, put it more colloquially. He told MPs that encouraging shark cage diving was akin to "running a stick down a fence with a couple of rottweilers inside and they suddenly find the gate's open".

Seafood New Zealand chairman George Clement felt similarly. "If we bait the sharks like people used to bait bears we are going to cause trouble," he said.

Newly-elected Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie, a member of the select committee, was alarmed enough to write the next day to her National Party colleague, Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, urging a review "into the management practices of the shark tourism operators, their impact on modifying shark behaviour and hence the safety risk posed to divers and whether or not granting a permit under the Wildlife Act is appropriate in these circumstances".

But if Ms Barry was concerned she was not saying so publicly and kicked the issue back to the department. A Stewart Island-led call for a moratorium while the contentious operation was fully assessed was ignored and on the following week permits were issued to the two operators and they were back in business. The permits are good for two years.

The conditions include a ban on the use of decoys and feeding the sharks and restriction to one area at Edwards Islands, a muttonbird island immediately north of Stewart Island, although there is no explicit provision for monitoring. On visiting Stewart Island it is soon apparent the opposition to shark cage diving is much wider than paua divers - the issue has polarised the entire community.

A letter in the Dec-Jan Stewart Island News (SIN) from Jill and Chris Fox details a frightening experience aboard their vessel Mareno when fishing for cod at the nearby Neck. A great white leapt out of the water and thudded on to the railing. "I just know there is really going to be a terrible tragedy that will affect all of us as Stewart islanders," they wrote.

The SIN is edited and published by Jess Kany, who organised a petition against shark cage diving that was promptly signed by a third of the islanders. Kany, who hails from New York, fell in love with the island as a tourist 13 years ago and then with Stu Cave, whose parents Helen and Joe own the South

Sea Hotel and Southern Seafoods exporting rock lobster to China. The couple have two young sons and enjoy a commanding view out across Horseshoe Bay in a home high above the clear water. But there is a constant reminder of the intrusion on their lifestyle that shark cage diving represents to them. Edwards Island where the sharks are attracted to daily is just four nautical miles to the north.

"The point I was trying to make in pushing the petition is it's not just the paua industry," Kany says. "This is our community. A lot of people signed because they're parents. "I'm a mother with two little boys and I was hoping they would be out in the water diving and swimming and water skiing and having a grand time.

"It's a different feeling now. I'm speaking for my husband and others who grew up here. They're gutted." Kany says. "I only circulated the petition locally and only for three days. "I only put it up on social media and let people come to me."

The response was extraordinary from people from all different walks of life. Even people who work for DoC signed it. Everyone has different reasons. Everyone uses the water, it is their playground and their office. People are now concerned about getting in the water, about even getting in a boat. "People say this is getting absolutely out of hand.

"I can't see how the activities can co-exist. "Either we become a shark alley, a shark mecca selling shark t-shirts and tea towels and all the rest, or we listen to the community."

Kany does not find any comfort in the permit conditions DoC has newly imposed on the two cage shark dive operators. "There is nothing evaluated there, no policing of it.

"It goes against everything that DoC stands for, it's in complete contravention of the Wildlife Act. "We know not to touch kiwis, don't shine a torch in a penguin's eye, don't head out to interact with dolphins and whales in the bay and we're told don't feed the kaka because it modifies their behaviour.

"DoC is not only turning a blind eye to the shark attracting, they're sanctioning it.

"We haven't seen the level of shark aggression around boats before - the fishermen will tell you. People are saying that who have lived here for a long time."

Kany had her own great white experience when boating with her husband and friends a few years ago - a couple surfaced and came at the boat.

"My God, I get the adrenalin rush. But not in our backyard please." Ian Wilson, a sixth generation islander, and wife Pip have a huge vested interest in both tourism and the paua industries. They operate the island's water taxi and also have an accommodation business.

"This is a community issue, it's much wider than the paua industry," he says.

As a paua diver he is always conscious of the danger of great whites. He once saw a freshly bitten seal go charging by with its guts hanging out. He swung around and saw a large shape on the edge of his underwater vision. "I was straight up on the rocks."

He says DoC has failed to properly regulate and oversee shark cage diving.

"I felt DoC was never going to say no.

"They have issued permits for two years. Unless there is some evidence they are not operating as they are meant to, it's just going to continue. It's very hard to assess."

He said DoC should have insisted on having observers aboard at the operators' expense.

He questions why a dive site was approved that is so close to the township.

"Potentially it could end in tears but the operators won't take the blame for it."

Pip Wilson is bitter that community concerns have been overridden. She was going to set up a paddle board business last year but has had to abandon that. She says the local kids can no longer jump off the wharf without fear. Her own son used to row out to the rocks in the middle of the bay and fish. "You wouldn't do that now. You just wouldn't."

Veteran fisherman Gary Neave says there has always been the odd shark hanging around the bay. "Someone would go out with a line or a net and catch it but you're not allowed to do that anymore. "Most of the community here is opposed (to shark cage diving) because of the added danger.

Husbands and fathers and friends, it is putting them all in danger. It's become a conflict." He was not prepared to predict an attack would happen but that was everyone's fear. He was not usually a petition signer but supported the community one calling for a moratorium.

"It's a tough one, opposing people who are trying to start a business up and have already made a commitment to it. "But these fish are aggressive. "I've seen a video of the local policeman in a wee fizzboat with a shark biting his motor. "He pulled up the skeg of the outboard and it still came up and attacked it. Hole moley, it's a mean little video, I tell you."

A boom in the protected fur seal population offered high protein for the great whites. "It could be as the population of seals has boomed the population of white pointers has followed it." He said the "whiteys" were also known to take mollymawks sitting on the surface. "Whether it's from boredom of for fun or irritability, I don't know."

Neave began cod fishing in 1967 and his first encounter with a great white was two years later aboard Te Parera at the end of the Oban wharf. He heard a splash, looked over the side and saw a shark that looked as long as the 32-foot boat. The crew put a whole cod on a grapnel and threw that out while someone raced away to former whaler Bosun Huntley to borrow his harpoon.

In the meantime the shark hit the bait, straightened the steel grapnel and was gone. On a subsequent occasion they were cleaning fish in shallow water in Mason's Bay with another vessel when sharks appeared. A large one latched on to a bait dangled beneath a buoy and Fossie Fisher climbed up on the wheelhouse with a .303 and fired a shot at it. The shark let go but later that night either it or another monster was caught. It was hung on the wharf at Bluff and measured at 19 feet 6 inches (6 metres).

Zane Smith is a 13th generation islander who began commercial paua diving with Stu Cave in 1988 at the age of 14. He is regarded as a gun diver, renowned for diving alone in remote spots and spending as much as 12 hours in the water. Until seven years ago, despite fishing all his life, he had never seen a great white. Nor had many others. They were elusive, the stuff of legend. Now, he says, he could recite over a dozen stories from the past five years. He says the sharks are becoming both more common and more aggressive. "They are not a creature that is elusive any more. Now they will come right alongside the boat."

Zane also nets butterfish and was at the centre of controversy last year when he accidentally netted one of the protected great whites.

"It is inevitable that somebody will be bitten," he says. "It certainly makes you think about the risk, it's in the back of your mind a lot more.

"A major concern for me is I've been swimming off the beach here since I was very small, messing about in boats and then commercial diving without a care in the world about great whites.

"But now the school has cancelled some water events because sharks are coming into the bay.

"They are becoming afraid of the water and are not going swimming like we did. That's upsetting for me. "Great whites are quite an amazing creature but I'd prefer they remained elusive."

He says the sharks are now getting fed and that is clearly altering their behaviour. He rejects the argument put up by shark cage operator Peter Scott, himself a one-time fisherman, that the sharks have already learned to come to boats because generations of cod fisherman have thrown guts and heads overboard when preparing the catch.

"The mollies (mollymawks) get the bulk of it and it's in different places and different times." Brett Hamilton has been fishing for 40 years, since he was 10 out with his grandfather, and is another to have seen a marked change in white pointer behaviour.

"We never used to have these encounters and now we have them all the time," he says. He never saw a great white until he was 24 but now they come alongside his blue cod and rock lobster vessel "asking you for a feed".

"They are actively seeking out boats.

"Some of them are enormous. You feel like jumping to the middle of the boat.

"The surprising thing is their girth. They are huge. It gets the old ticker going."

He worries about his son Morgan, who is a paua diver.

"One of the biggest gripes we've got is these guys come in from out of town, don't initiate discussions with the community and just set up. It's no wonder we're a bit miffed about it."

He says it is certain somebody will be attacked.

"A couple of years ago a great white had a go at a dinghy with a family in it." He says the sharks know the sound of the dive boats and could easily follow them back into Halfmoon Bay.

"They've got them well trained, you've got to admit." The number of great whites identified at Stewart Island is astonishingly high at 120 and rising. DoC's Clinton Duffy, an adviser in the marine ecosystems team and a highly regarded shark expert, has been tagging and studying great whites since 2007 and says his photo-id catalogue will likely continue to increase as new sharks are identified every year. They are individually recognisable from their colour patterns. The sharks range widely and from 2010-12 Duffy has identified between 29 and 42 sharks during two-week field trips. In the last two years he estimates the numbers have been less than that at around 23 to 25.

"My feeling is that our research and the advent of cage diving has made people aware of how many white sharks are actually present around Stewart Island and they are actively looking for them and taking greater note of sightings now," he says.

His impression is the sharks' behaviour has not materially altered. "I have not seen any change in the way they behave around the boat, particularly if there aren't any baits in the water." But he also says "some of the sharks we have observed for multiple years demonstrate familiarity with boats and have clearly learned how to steal throw baits and will use a number of aggressive strategies to get them". On one occasion he saw a large female attack a boat - the Jester in 2007 when tagging at Bench Island.

While the operators may not be welcome on Stewart Island - and don't push their luck in choosing to avoid the South Sea Hotel, the community's hub at the main Stewart Island settlement of Oban - the shark dive tourists are not affected by the tensions. An assistant in the supermarket said the tourists were absolutely buzzing when they came in. German tourists Petra and Stefan from Bavaria, who did not want to give their surnames, wearing shark dive t-shirts in the hotel dining room, said it was an awesome experience.

They said some bait had been thrown on a line and two great whites appeared. With strong demand and a lucrative business, the operators are unrepentant. Michael Haines' Bluff-based Shark Experience and Peter Scott's Shark Dive charge tourists as much as $630 a head to see the sharks close up or $400 if staying on the boat. With six in the water and two observing that returns $4500 a trip. Brett Hamilton, a local fisherman, has seen marked change in white pointer behaviour.

Both argue that since Stewart Island fishermen have been tossing cod guts over the side for generations the great whites are already used to being fed. Scott, who remains on the Federation of Commercial Fishermen executive, says the hit rate is 100 per cent, the sharks always turn up. He runs about 50 trips a year from January through to June.

One thing is clear in this clouded debate that has split a tranquil community - the issue is not going to go away. New Zealand First is taking up the cause and two of the party's MPs supported overturning the permits at a public meeting at Oban in mid-January attended by 80 people.

Brett Hamilton sums up the mood of many when he says there will be an attack on a swimmer or diver or fisher by a great white shark.

"It's not a matter of if, it's when."

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