To feed or not to feed?
Is feeding the fish in a marine reserve a bad practice?
by Dr J Floor Anthoni
in-depth logo Floor Anthoni


    When entering a protected place where the fish are bountiful and fearless, we react by wanting to do something nice for them, like feeding. This gesture is well understood as a token of friendship by many species, and is gratefully accepted. Inside a marine reserve, however, it may create conflict with those people who want the fish to behave naturally, like ignoring us. What should we do?
  • benefits: the fishes are all in favour of being fed. Feeding attracts fish into the reserve, which then protects them.
  • problems: some people think that feeding is unnatural and can cause sickness in fish. Too much food in the water can cause bacterial growth.
  • missed opportunities: feeding behaviour is a low level of behaviour, unlike exploring, learning and playing.
  • solutions: DOC prohibited all feeding
  • other options: a little bit of feeding in a limited area, done mainly by children, could do more good than harm.

Benefits of feeding
If the fishes had their say, feeding them would stay on their menu. In the weekends, some swim from many hundreds of metres away, towards the beach, whereas others find a place to stay, closer to the beach. Whenever people appear on the fishes' underwater horizon, the fish become excited, and jostle for a good position to get close to the food. For most fish, this is quite a daring move, so it is only the ones most motivated or those with the least fear, who take part in the food handout.


f022018: watching the hand that feeds
f022018: Blue maomao watch for signs of people appearing on their underwater horizon. Here you can see them nervously jostling for the best position. Attracted by hunger, but repelled by fear, each gets a chance.
f022122: frozen peas galore
f022122: Snorkellers soon find themselves surrounded by fish who have lost most fear. However, they do not allow themselves to be touched. These fish do not have an interest in us, but in the food we bring.

Not all fish species are corrupted (spoiled, bribed) by feeding. Some don't like the food that people bring (red moki, butterfish, porae, most plankton-feeders), others find the morsels just too small (large snapper), or they are just too scared (leatherjacket, stingrays, marblefish). Most could not be bothered, because they can find their food easily anyway (banded wrasse, parore, butterfish). In a marine reserve for instance, one could have 10,000 blue maomao, but only some 300-400 come to be fed. Of the thousand or so of parore, only ten get attracted to the unusual food. Some fish have lost their friends, and as they are lonely, find consolation with schools of fish of other species. The odd kahawai, or large trevally may stay for an easy meal. That is not a silly idea, because these schooling fish, can find food only when they comb the sea side-by-side in dense formation. A lone kahawai will find it very difficult to catch fish on its own. So, in a way, by feeding the fish, the loners get a longer lease on life. In return, they remain faithful to the reserve.

f022024: Blue maomao have found a home near the beach
f022024: A school of three year old blue maomao has found a home close to where the food arrives, in Blue Maomao Channel aka Feeding Vhannel, a steep gully in Hormosira Flats. These fish normally feed on planktonic shrimps, but occasionally when such food is scarce, nibble on plants.
f019936: Red moki are not interested
f019936: Red moki feed on small crustaceans hiding in the pink coralline turf, out of which they suck these with a loud noise. They have never become interested in the food people bring. For them, food is easy to find.

What people discovered, was that the fishes became tamer than they would have been without feeding. The sea started to look like a real paradise, and this again attracted more and more people to Goat Island. Many came to let their small children experience the excitement of being in the water, close to a lot of friendly fishes.

f015827: feeding blue maomao
f015827: children particularly were enraptured and delighted to find the blue fishes swarming around their legs while standing in knee-deep water. The protection afforded by the marine reserve meant that this could last forever.
f017921: the legendary Monkeyface
f017921: gigantic snapper like the legendary Monkeyface, stayed around the feeding area, attracted by something to see and the feeling of safety in numbers. It became obvious that a fish fed meant a fish saved. Fish had an economic reason to stay, rather than to spill out of the reserve, where they would be caught.

Attracted by the feeding, schools of fish concentrated near the main access point in the reserve. Because fish feel safe in numbers, it also attracted other fish that were not directly interested in food (large snapper, silver drummer). The sea began to look like an imagined paradise. It gave people an entirely new look on the sea, and it made people favour more marine reserves. The fishes that came for food, became the most effective ambassadors for marine conservation.

Not only did the fish benefit the visitors to the beach, but also local businesses where people hired their snorkel gear, bought food for the fishes and for themselves. The local community of Leigh who had to give up a number of very good fishing spots, finally received some benefits in return. The total increase in the economy was sufficient to feed another four families. Leigh has a permanent population of about 60 families, so the difference was noticeable.

People also came to the Seafriends Marine Conservation and Education Centre where they visited the seawater aquariums with over 100 different species in eight tanks, representing the main habitats around Leigh. They also read books from the extensive library and pored over a thousand photos showing the underwater environment. As long as people kept coming to the reserve, they had a chance to educate themselves further about this newfound charm, the sea. It also provided Seafriends with additional income to fight for saving our seas, which are threatened in various ways.
Problems of feeding
The fish feeding, at its height, took on unsustainable proportions. Busloads of tourists came from Auckland around the low tide, to walk over the rock flats to Blue Maomao Channel, where they stood in line to feed the fishes. For many Asian families, this was a weird but wonderful experience, which back home would have been impossible, even unthinkable. Here were the fishes, known for their good taste, and instead of catching them, people were feeding and admiring them. It brought about a revolution in thinking and feeling about the sea.

f015200: first encounter
f015200: for many Asian families, the view down Blue Maomao Channel, was a first and lasting experience. Here they were able to feed the friendly fishes, and to admire them in their environment.
f015820: shrimps respond to feeding
f015820: Once they were there, children explored the mysteries and marvels of the rocky shore at Hormosira Flats. This boy is feeding the triplefins and shrimps in one of the deep rock pools.

On a nice summer weekend, people were seen feeding the fishes such large quantities of food, that the sea water began to change. All this food somehow had to be broken down by bacteria in the sea, some of which resemble those inside human intestines. The water started to look murky, and currents were unable to cleanse the sand sufficiently to keep up with the supply of food. Some fish swam around with largely extended stomachs. But all in all, the fish were not overly worried, and kept coming for more food.

The purists amongst marine reserve lovers, began to worry and complain that the food was interfering with the area's natural balance. It changed fish behaviour such that they behaved like begging gangs. Swimmers began to complain that they were bitten while feeding the fish. This happens when fish hurry frenzy-like to the feeder, mistaking a finger or two for food. Some people did stupid things, like placing the food inside their masks, only to have their noses bitten. Some people worried that the fishes may suffer from diseases, like cardiovascular diseases, related to eating too much wrong food.

Underwater photographers both loved and hated the feeding. On the one hand it gave them the opportunity to approach fish with ease, and to photograph them in incredible numbers, with and without people. On the other hand, they had these begging fish following them everywhere, making it impossible to take natural photographs without snapper appearing somewhere in the picture.

f015204: excessive feeding
f015204: the friendly gesture of feeding was often overdone. People arrived with buckets full of food. The fish, ducks and gulls became saturated. The wastes in the water started to discolour it, and visibility reduced to the extent that people could hardly see the fish in the water.
f022025: incredible numbers of snapper were attracted.
f022025: incredible numbers of (young) snapper were attracted to Blue Maomao Channel, particularly in the weekends when the supply of food seemed inexhaustible.

Feeding and Maslow's rulesA missed opportunity
What people didn't realise, was that they missed an important opportunity by feeding the fishes. In a healthy marine reserve, where sufficient amounts of food are available, the fish are well fed, and have some time on hand for lazing in tranquil spots, socialising and watching humans in the water. Yes, they do find us interesting, but also unpredictable and dangerous.
When we go in the water, we are not consciously aware that we feel secure, have fed ourselves, have found a place within our friends and family, and that we therefore are ready to discover and play. It is a sequence of conditions, necessary for functioning at the top of our abilities. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow discovered this about a century ago, and he formulated the four rules as shown in the diagram. Surprisingly, these rules apply to fish too!
So, whereas we use the food as part of our playing and discovery, it turns the fishes from their level 4 down to a feeding frenzy at level 2, and we miss out on interacting with them on the same level of play and discovery. It is a missed opportunity.

It is not easy to play with the fishes, because it does not consist of swimming up to them, wanting to touch and stroke them, which most people do. The fish see this unprepared approach as a frontal attack, from which they shy and flee away. By behaving like this, people have shied a number of fascinating species away, like stingrays and leatherjackets. Approaching fish for playing, requires us to behave in a much more careful and patient way. We will discuss this aspect in another Indepth chapter.

In all, it became clear that feeding the fish, however fascinating, brought with it conflict in various ways. A solution had to be found.
The solution that the managers of this reserve (the Department of Conservation) took, was that of a complete prohibition of fish feeding. They did so suddenly, without consulting the local community. Their argument was that feeding was a punishable offence under the Marine Reserves Act 1971. However, no feeding is mentioned in the act. The argument is based on this clause: 3a) They shall be preserved as far as possible in their natural state. In 1996 the offences have been extended in clause 18I: Every person commits an offence against this Act ... who, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse: (c) Wilfully interferes with or wilfully disturbs in a marine reserve any marine life, foreshore or seabed, or any of the natural features. Feeding is interpreted as an unnatural activity and wilful disturbance, for which no reasonable excuse is acceptable.
Of course, no judge in the land will be inclined to fine or jail on this basis, or else there would be something terribly wrong indeed with our justice system. After all, feeding is a nice gesture to the fish, and in moderation, has tremendous benefits. With all the money spent on roading, parking, toilets, signage and so forth, we have done nothing nice for the fish. Instead we have stopped being nasty (like shooting or eating them). One should also remember that the sheer presence of large numbers of people, disturbs marine life, even without feeding the fish. No judge would make a ruling on this basis. So, in effect, DoC has no backing by law on this matter.

The single-handed decision by DoC has been unforgivable because no consultation took place with the local community, who knows the sea best and also the value and damage of fish feeding. Immediately the number of visitors to the reserve (not counting schools) dropped to half of its original value. Local businesses suffered losses. Seafriends for example, made losses amounting to $30,000 for each successive year. The chance of educating people about the value of marine reserves almost evaporated, since also the fishes disappeared. But worse was still to come.

Because people were stopped on the beach when seen with fish food, they resorted to a different method. The sea had plenty of food in the form of sea urchins. With a knife or stone these could be broken open. It was simple and effective. The fish loved the fresh nutricious food. But taking life from a reserve is wrong, and not surprisingly, an offence. By taking urchins, the rocks are no longer grazed, allowing seaweeds to occupy the once barren spaces. The environment changed. Yet worse was still to come.

f028216: sacrificing sea urchins?
f028216: a snorkeldiver holds an urchin and plays with it. Immediately, snapper arrive, knowing that food is about to be offered. Fish now arrive at the mere sound of tapping stones together, which they associate with the breaking of sea eggs.
f030227: following a trail of broken urchins
f030227: a diver follows a trail of broken urchins, and snapper, spotty and hiwihiwi follow in the hope of fresh ones being offered. Because urchins were used as fish food, they have become rare in the area surrounding the beach.

What people do not realise, is that the Goat Island marine reserve experiences a rapid decline in water quality, and with it an equally rapid decline in numbers of species and individuals. Since the late 1980s, erosion from adjacent land has been accelerating, resulting in muddy waters after each heavy rain storm, followed by dense plankton blooms. Because these happen mainly in winter and spring, when few people visit the beach, this has largely been left unnoticed. The mud suffocates water-breathing animals like sponges and fishes. But the fishes can swim away to clearer water, which is what they do. When the water clears up, they return to the beach. But they do so only when food is offered as incentive. In other words, there are two opposing forces at work: the mud repelling the fish, while food is attracting them. Leave the food out, and the fish will stay away, which is exactly what happened.

f015803: the dream come true?
f015803: clear waters, many visitors, bountiful sea life. A dream come true?
f013205: muddy waters and degradation
f013205: muddy waters, suffocated sea life, disappearing fish, rapid environmental degradation. End of a success story?

What other options are available?
Prohibiting fish feeding was not a clever idea, because the problem was not in the feeding but in the quantity fed. Feeding became excessive only in one or two months of the year, followed by a long period of moderation (winter). Since people disappeared with the fish, also the chance of education diminished. Solving the problems associated with fish feeding is something that could have been part of education and individual responsibility. In the end, the concept of conservation must live in one's mind, applied to many other instances of stressed resources. It must not live by draconian rules and enforcement, that no longer hold true upon leaving the conservation area. We must learn to live in moderation, even when nobody is watching. To leave the people to decide what to do, would have given a tremendous opportunity for self-control, pride and a sense of virtue. So what other options were available?

First of all, we must believe that people who come to the reserve are of a good nature, and willing to help. They just don't know that there are problems, and they don't know what to do. So, the problem should have been presented, as it is here, on a publication panel, complete with options. People can then choose according to their particular situation.

Since the quantity fed was the main problem, people could be encouraged not to buy fish food. People's favourite choice of food consists of frozen peas, because these dispatch in small parcels. Unfortunately, frozen peas are sold in large bags only. Although not their natural food, zooplankton-feeding blue maomao and trevally took to them, as did plant-feeding parore. Snapper and blue cod were more interested in bread and dog-rolls, which for them were the most favoured because of their high protein content.

In order to disturb as little an area as possible, leaving a large area for people wanting to see a truly undisturbed environment, the following rules could be suggested: Various combinations of the above suggestions, would have diminished the quantity fed considerably, while at the same time retaining the immense pleasure experienced by feeding the fish. Amounting to a win-win situation for all concerned, this can still be done instead of a full ban. Marine reserves near large human populations can never become natural, and they should be managed flexibly for most educational value and enjoyment.
Fish biting too well at Goat Island
Paul Charman, Rodney times, 27 Dec 2001
The Department of Conservation's ban on fish feeding at Goat Island has reduced reports of snapper jumping from the water to chomp carelessly held sandwiches, and biting fingers. But fish feeding supporters say the ban has also reduced fish numbers in the marine reserve.
DOC's ban followed dozens of reports from divers and swimmers suffering nips on unguarded flesh. Foolhardy divers who held food in their teeth for the fish to take, occasionally reported torn lips. And a snorkeller feeding frozen peas to blue cod was terrified when an excited snapper attacked his ear.
In addition to the safety angle, DOC claimed the feeding was polluting the water with food waste, making the fish vomit and changing their natural behaviour. "But the feeding practice brought throngs of fish to the beach," says veteran Goat Island diver, Floor Anthoni. Mr Anthoni claims fish deserted in droves when feeding stopped, while still more fish have been driven away by silt intrusion from the creek running through the reserve.
"DOC made its decision without consulting local tourist operators," he complains. "The department should allow some controlled feeding to bring the fish in again, and allow people to enjoy them," he says. "It's perfectly natural for humans to feed animals and when you think about it, it's the only nice thing we do for them here. Fish don't gain anything from the money DOC spends on roading and amenities."
But natural history photo-journalists Tony Enderby claims the feeding got well beyond a joke. "Some days people arrived with armfuls of bread, huge bags of frozen peas and large dog rolls. At times it left an oily scum on the water. And some fish choked on the plastic bags or dog roll wrappers." The swarms of blue cod have not left entirely, he believes, but moved to the outer part of the reserve when feeding stopped. Even without the lure of food, Mr Enderby admits tame blue cod and other species will sometimes gently nibble ungloved fingers, 'just to check you out'.

Goat Island claims unscientific
Bob Dickson, Area Manager Department of Conservation
Rodney Times 15 January 2002
A number of unscientific claims and unsubstantiated assertions feature in the December 27 front-page story on fish feeding at Goat Island.
The fundamental purpose of any marine reserve is to maintain the marine environment in its natural state (false). Activities such as feeding of fish by the public, particularly to the excessive and bizarre extent exhibited at Goat Island until recently, interfere with the natural food balance and behaviour of many fish species.
These activities have never been lawful at Goat Island and are in fact offences under the Marine Reserves Act (false). It is therefore not correct to allege Department of Conservation has introduced a ban on such practices. What has occurred, as visitor numbers increased, is an increase in warnings by DOC rangers and in signage requesting the public not to feed the fish. DOC also received advice from the nearby Leigh Marine Laboratory, whose research highlighted a growing problem with species' unnatural behaviour patterns associated with fish feeding practices by the public.
While DOC recognises the expectations of visitors to this unique area, it has to be made clear that where there is conflict between visitor behaviour and preserving the conservation values of the marine reserve, it is DOC's duty, as I'm sure the public of New Zealand would insist, to ensure the welfare of the reserve is paramount.
There is no question that fish feeding did encourage a large number of fish, particularly blue maomao into shallow water at the beach. Most of these fish have now gone back to their natural habitat of mid-to-deeper water within the reserve. Here they enjoy an abundant and natural diet of plankton, copepods and algae, instead of bread, frozen peas and dog rolls.
The reported complaint that 'DOC made its decision without consulting local tourist operators', apart being wrong insofar as no decision was made, displays ignorance of the fact that the management plan for Goat Island was widely advertised in draft form (false). Many submissions were received from the community, including dive operators. The final plan, adopted in 1998 after a public meeting, addressed the issue of fish feeding raised through this consultation process. (DOC has a bad reputation re consultation, as documented extensively on this website)
DOC appreciates the concern shown by the Rodney Times by giving prominence to this matter and hope the above assists in explaining the situation.

Related issues on this web site:
Introduction to marine reserves: an in-depth introduction of marine reserves and why coastal marine reserves fail in NZ.
The war for marine reserves: The NZ government wants more, by hook or by crook. But people become aware.
The Goat Island marine reserve: history, geography, ecology, dive sites. A virtual visit with many photos.
The Poor Knights marine reserve: New Zealand's second marine reserve and best dive spot. A virtual visit.
The Kermadec Islands marine reserve: an isolated group of small volcanic islands in a wide open ocean. A virtual visit.
Niue Island: a cool-tropical paradise in a gin-clear ocean. A virtual visit.

-- Seafriends home -- indepth index -- site map -- Revised: 20060808,20071012,