One of the main reasons people snorkel is so that they can get a good look at the fishes. If you have an underwater camera with you, then you will also want to snap a few photos or record exciting footage of the fish you come across. However, what do you do if the fish are shy and you aren’t able to get the perfect shot?
Many snorkelers like to ensure they are always surrounded by a school of fish by bringing fish food with them into the water. Fish will flock to anybody who has food and you can get your perfect picture and an exciting snorkeling experience. You might even think you are doing the fish a huge favor, but in reality, the opposite is true.
When snorkelers feed the fish, they are actually doing long-term damage to the ecosystem. The fish become accustomed to humans giving them food, and this behavior is known as conditioning. They are now more vulnerable to predators, and are more likely to approach all humans who may or may not have good intentions in mind. Fish normally eat algae, but when they are fed, algae growth runs rampant. There are many negative reasons for feeding fish so the reality is, you should not give fish food while snorkeling.
In this article, we will discuss in greater detail the pros and cons of giving fish food while snorkeling. Since the cons are so overwhelmingly bad, we recommend you don’t do it, as tempting as it may seem. You’ll often see signs telling you not to touch the fish, let alone feed them, which is enforceable with fines. In the same way that you should not feed wild animals on land, the same principle applies to aquatic life.
Why do snorkelers like to feed fish?
To attract more fish
Some people like to think they are a Disney Prince or Princess, and that wherever they go, animals flock to them as if they have some kind of innate power. When they realize they don’t quite have the charm of Ariel or Aquaman, they resort to giving the fish food.
People who snorkel usually do so while on vacation, where they have likely already paid thousands of dollars so they feel justified in getting their money’s worth out of it. They’re going to make darn sure they are surrounded by fish no matter what, otherwise they wasted precious time and money with nothing to show for it.
To be fair, many fish are incredibly shy. Many fish are prey animals, so they have a healthy fear of creatures that are larger than them. Maybe you spotted an eel that is hiding under a rock that won’t come out no matter what you do, and you absolutely need to get a closer look at it. Dangling some food in front of it will surely entice it to come out.
To get the perfect picture/video
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so what better way to tell an exciting story than to capture a photo or record video footage of an encounter with a large school of fish?
Photography is really fun, and underwater photography is next level. Most people are used to seeing pictures of buildings, mountains, trees, but the underwater world is like another planet. I don’t blame people for wanting to record their snorkeling experiences to show their family, friends, even strangers.
Sometimes you want to get the perfect shot, but the subject is either too shy to come out, or won’t move in a predictable way. What better way to tame them than offering it food? Or maybe your intention is to attract a massive school of fish and take a photo of you in the middle of a whirlpool of fish. Well, feeding them will certainly help accomplish this.
To impress the kids/friends/family
Particularly if you are showing someone how to snorkel for the first time, you want their experience to be mind-blowingly good. This is especially true for kids, who are naturally curious and impressionable. You don’t want them to think snorkeling is boring for the rest of their life, do you?
An easy way to impress them is to, you guessed it, bring some fish food and pretend you’re a fish whisperer. This is especially true if the marine life is scarce at first. As soon as you take out some food, you will be surrounded by fish in no time. Your kid, friend, significant other, or family member will be impressed at the sight of so many fish.
You might even pass some food to them so that they can have a chance to wield this awesome power to call forth an army of fish. While they’re doing that, you snap a few photos and now you have a great memory to talk about for years to come.
To feel good
As we’ve alluded to above, it feels good to “help” the animals by feeding them. It also feels quite intoxicating being able to summon all these aquatic creatures to your side on demand. You feel like you are a fish whisperer, that you are a benevolent helper or savior, and it’s just so much more fun when there’s fish activity.
However, we spoiled pretty early on that as fun and exciting as it seems to feed the fish, it’s ultimately not very good for them and the environment long-term. The short-term fun you get can ruin the experience for future snorkelers, and the fish population and corals will only decline over time.
Does it sound like we’re exaggerating? Let’s discuss the downsides now, and there are many.
Why you shouldn’t feed the fish while snorkeling
It messes up the ecosystem
Ecosystems are all connected. As we mentioned, many fish normally eat algae, and this is necessary to keep the algae in check. All animals in an ecosystem play their part in ensuring it remains in balance. When it is disrupted, it can cause a chain reaction of fish species dying out.
When you feed the fish, you are affecting the fish’s normal behavior which can eventually result in the destruction of coral reefs and the marine life they support. When a snorkeler or diver gives the fish food, the fish are being conditioned to leave their territory and nests to approach humans.
These fish are more susceptible to humans with bad intentions and to predators since they are letting their guard down. Once fed, they no longer feel the need to eat algae, which means the algae can spread unchecked and hurt the coral reef.
Fish that have been conditioned to humans will also approach all humans. Perhaps not all snorkelers like being surrounded by fish and find it uncomfortable. It also increases the chance of a dangerous encounter with aquatic life. It is best if both fish and humans keep to themselves.
They aren’t getting the right nutrients
Fish are very delicate creatures. Feeding them the wrong kind of food can be damaging to their digestive systems. Just like humans, eating junk food is not beneficial; fish need certain amino acids in their diets which they typically receive from their natural diet.
Whatever food humans give out, typically bread, will change their behavior so that instead of seeking out their usual food source, they just approach humans instead. Their natural diet should be varied and is affected by seasonal, daily, or temporal changes. When fish begin to anticipate getting fed at a certain time, they begin to miss out on whatever nutrients the food they would normally eat at that time would have provided them.
A fish’s digestive system is also used to a very specific diet, and even a specific range of digestive bacteria. When they are fed the wrong food, the wrong type of bacteria can spread and this makes it harder for them to resume their regular diet.
Plus, they need to maintain their survival and hunting instincts; altering their behavior makes returning to normalcy difficult. This can actually cause some fish to starve to death once the humans leave.
They become more aggressive
We mentioned this briefly, but fish that are conditioned to humans have no fear of humans. Even humans who don’t have food and who want to be left alone are approached. Someone might find themselves caught in a feeding frenzy by hungry fish who think the human has food. People have gotten bitten or attacked by fish that mistook their fingers for food.
When there is a large congregation of fish like this, it may even attract some larger fish. While this may be cool for people who want to see a big fish and take a picture of it, not everyone wants that. For instance, some people might be deathly afraid of sharks even though they are mostly harmless to us. Some people just want to snorkel peacefully.
Even throwing your scraps overboard is an issue
Has this happened to you? Say you’re on a snorkeling boat tour, you’ve just finished snorkeling, and now you are having a delicious lunch in the sun. The crew announce that they are heading back soon and begin to collect everyone’s garbage. It’s often the case that scraps are simply thrown overboard, even by the crewmembers.
Even if you haven’t physically interacted with the fish, the outcome is still the same. Fish will begin to learn that food tends to be tossed overboard and will congregate around boats. They are still being conditioned and exposed to food they don’t normally eat.
Rather than tossing leftovers overboard, they should be collected and brought back to the shop to be composted. Simply chucking your trash into the ocean, even if it is biodegradable, is not a good habit to have. Some people take it even further and chuck non-biodegradable garbage such as plastics which do even more damage to aquatic life.
What about fish sticks?
We are referring to a stick of food for fish to eat, not a fish on a stick for humans to eat. The most famous type of fish food is simply called “Snorkel Fish Food”.
According to its marketing, it seemingly is beneficial for the fish. It is “nutritionally balanced” which addresses one of the issues we brought up, is non-polluting and biodegradable, which means it will not clog up the ocean, and it will attract a lot of fish.
Unfortunately, Snorkel Fish Food (and any other fish stick) does not address any of the behavior changes that it can cause fish to exhibit, such as aggression and being dangerously comfortable with humans. It will also change the fish’s natural eating habits and cause a dependency on humans which has a ripple effect as we already explained.
Overall, we cannot recommend this product, even if it is slightly better than the usual junk people feed fish with.
Why do so many people feed the fish?
For many of the reasons described in the first section, many snorkelers like to feed fish. We like to think that most people do it with good intentions, but ultimately it leads to a negative outcome.
Too many people are uninformed, misinformed, or outright ignorant or nonchalant about feeding fish. They feel like they aren’t causing that much damage, that they are doing the fish a favor, or just straight up don’t care about the consequences of their actions. They are feeding the fish for their selfish reasons, or see others doing it and think it’s okay to participate as well.
Since you’ve read this article, you know better than to feed fish while snorkeling. We encourage you to let others know that feeding fish is harmful to not only the fish, but the ecosystem as well, and it comes full circle because it will eventually affect humans negatively too.
Whether you are snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, or sailing, you should take responsibility for your actions and for the environment. Resist the urge to feed the fish for your own safety as well. Fish that are in a feeding frenzy can bite you, and they have sharp teeth too. Rather than contributing to the problem, be part of the solution, and let the fish hunt for the food themselves.