All About Florida Keys Fishing & Key West Fishing

    Marine Fish Feeding

    By Dan Roberts, Research Scientist
    Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
    Published in Florida Fishing Weekly, Nov. 26, 2006

    In 2001, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) unanimously voted
    to prohibit divers from feeding marine life in Florida. You might be wondering why the FWC
    believes these “interactive marine experiences” are harmful. After all, the fish get an easy
    meal, and divers get entertained, so what’s the problem?

    Overall, feeding marine fish is a bad idea for everyone, including divers, fish and the
    ecosystem. Contrary to popular belief, fish have memories and can learn. Through
    behavioral conditioning, fed animals learn to associate people with a meal. When this
    happens, fish anticipate the hand-feeding experience and depend on handouts from divers.

    Hand-feeding marine fish results in a variety of negative impacts. Most marine fish have
    around 10 essential amino acids required for growth and health maintenance. Fish cannot
    make these acids on their own, and they receive these building blocks from food. Fish
    generally consume a wide variety of prey in order to meet dietary requirements. To obtain
    the necessary nutrients, fish have complex feeding cycles.  Seasonal, daily and other
    temporal feeding strategies make up a fish’s foraging behavior. Fish conditioned to take an
    easy meal from divers begin anticipating meals, which interrupts natural feeding cycles. A
    fish conditioned to feed on diver deliveries may actually stop normal foraging patterns and
    become malnourished, stressed and can even die.  

    In addition to nutritional consequences, hand-fed fish are especially vulnerable to
    predators. In carnivorous fish, sensations associated with feeding can override other
    associations, including predator avoidance and protection. Competition for the handout
    interferes with natural instincts and behaviors, which are essential for survival and
    cohabitation with other species.

    Hand-feeding creates other ecological disturbances. These disturbances change
    community structure. Introducing a ration of food to a fish, even a ration of semi-natural
    food, is significant. By affecting the natural feeding behaviors, fish feeding can destabilize a
    number of ecological relationships including species abundance. The effects are unique to
    each marine community, but there is a measurable impact with recurring and prolonged

    Marine life maintains balanced ecological relationships by competing for habitat and food.
    In many cases, different species share space and alternate the use of that space by
    feeding at different times of day. Some species do not interact at all. This intricate balance
    of behavior can be interrupted by the introduction of a free meal from a diver. Unnatural
    feeding overrides normal competitive relationships among species. It fosters combative
    behavior among species that, under usual circumstances, may never come in contact with
    each other. Combative behavior can seriously injure animals. For example, pelicans and
    harbor seals rarely come in contact with each other in a typical habitat. When people feed
    pelicans, harbor seals may actually bite the birds as they compete for food.   

    Hand-feeding-induced attacks on humans do occur. Feeding wildlife can place people in
    harm’s way. In a letter to Governor Bush, a diver described a bad experience as a result of
    feeding fish.

    “On a dive vacation to Florida in 1999, I was attacked and bitten by a large green moray eel
    while on an interactive feeding dive...My attack was completely unprovoked, coming from

    Moray eels, sharks, barracuda, groupers and a host of other species are can pose an
    increased danger to divers as a result of hand-feeding.

    In addition to behavior changes in wild fish, fish in captivity also exhibit altered feeding
    behavior. Species such as red drum and snook, maintained by the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife
    Research Institute, become almost tame and partially domesticated to the point where they
    learn feeding routines, including locations of feed, times of feeding and possibly even the
    person feeding them.  Research has demonstrated this in shallow tanks with clear water,
    as well as in 1-acre ponds with cloudy water. In other studies, researchers have described
    groupers’ readiness to approach humans when in captivity.  Gag, a common grouper in the
    Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Ocean, would hold their heads out of the water to take
    food from humans, accepting direct hand-feeding in air much as you would feed a snack to
    a dog. This behavior demonstrates a feeding response overriding predator avoidance. Fish
    in nature learn the ways of the wild, while fish in captivity do not. Wild fish moved to captivity
    forget the ways of the wild and readily adapt to confinement and its routines.  Scientists
    have repeatedly observed this in science-based programs. Fish reared in captivity for stock
    enhancement sometimes undergo a process called habitation prior to release into the
    wild. This process conditions the fish to a more natural feeding behavior so they have a
    better chance of surviving in the wild.

    Next time you’re enjoying Florida’s marine environment, don’t be tempted to feed fish. FWC
    researchers are certain that feeding wild marine fish and invertebrates is bad for everyone.

    Source - Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
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