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from The Telegraph, London


Florida beaches shut as killer sharks lose their fear of people
By James Langton in New York

Sunday, April 22, 2001

SEVERAL Florida beach resorts popular with British holidaymakers are under pressure to follow the example of Deerfield, near Fort Lauderdale, which has banned tourists from diving with sharks.

The expeditions are intended to give people the chance to swim with harmless species of sharks. However, wildlife experts fear that it is only a matter of time before the bait of seafood attracts predators such as the great white to attack humans.

George Burgess, the director of the International Shark Attack Study at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said: "You wouldn't go to Africa and throw raw meat at a lion." The group's latest statistics show that Florida experienced the highest number of unprovoked shark attacks in the world last year: 34 out of the 79 people bitten.

Several beaches around Orlando were closed briefly last week after six attacks in 48 hours. The culprits were believed to be young spinner sharks that mistook swimmers' feet for fish, fuelling fears that sharks are being confused by the new phenomenon of diving trips. The increasing frequency of attacks is blamed on the rapid growth of this form of tourism, which has seen adventurous swimmers venturing into shark feeding grounds.

Shark dives, increasingly popular in the Bahamas and Florida, promise the thrill of swimming with sharks without the danger. Most of the species attracted are large but harmless nurse sharks, lured by buckets of bait. Coastal authorities fear that the diving trips will make sharks associate people with food and that the organisers would be helpless if more dangerous species arrived. Stephen Picardi, a Florida diver who is campaigning for tougher laws, said: "It is only a matter of time before something horrible happens."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is planning stricter regulations for the dives. Officials at Palm Beach introduced tougher regulations last month, including an agreement that the sharks would only be fed fresh seafood to replicate their normal diet.

Edwin Roberts, the head of the commission and a keen diver, says he has seen evidence that sharks are losing their fear of man, much as bears have done in some American national parks. He said: "I'm concerned about the precedent of humans interacting with wildlife in this way."

Jim Abernethy, who runs diving trips from West Palm Beach, is unconcerned. He said: "It is obvious to me from being in the water with them five days a week that they want nothing to do with us. We are not part of their food chain."

Supporters of the dives point out that out of the 10 fatalities in the world last year, only one was in Florida. He was Thadeus Kubinski, 69, who was taking his daily swim when he was attacked and killed last August by an eight foot bull shark weighing about 400lb.

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