HONOLULU – To Iolani Lewis, taking tourists to watch sharks in the ocean is a way to educate people about one of the world's most feared creatures.
But many in the affluent Hawaii Kai community where he's docked his tour boat say his business would endanger lives by recklessly feeding, and thus attracting, sharks to waters where residents swim, kayak, surf and paddle canoes every day.
A raucous dispute over Lewis' proposed venture has jolted this normally peaceful waterfront enclave on the eastern fringe of Honolulu. The row erupted when residents spotted a shark cage — a metal enclosure that protects people from sharks during the tours — mounted on Lewis' boat at a marina in front of a popular restaurant about a month ago.
Residents recognized the cage from tour operators who have been running similar businesses on Oahu's North Shore for almost a decade.
"The whole idea, we want to kill it," pioneering big wave surfer George Downing told a packed town hall meeting Thursday. "We are all going to be fighting this until the end."
About 40 shark species live in Hawaii waters. Sandbar, whitetip reef and tiger sharks are among those most commonly encountered by people. The fish aren't interested in eating people, and rarely attack humans. If they do bite, it's usually because they've mistaken a person for a turtle or other prey.
Even so, there are usually several shark attacks in Hawaii waters each year, some of them fatal.
Lewis, who worked for a North Shore shark tour company for four years, said he first thought of running shark tours off Maunalua Bay in January. He picked the location because he lives in the neighborhood.
"I think we have a really good opportunity to go out there and share what is in the ocean with other people," Lewis said.
A hostile, standing-room only crowd of 400 angry residents jammed into the cafeteria at Kailoiki Elementary School on Thursday night thought differently.
The room grumbled when Lewis repeatedly mispronounced their bay as "Moanalua," which is the name of a valley halfway across Oahu.
Several people repeatedly demanded to know where Lewis hailed from before they would let him speak. When he replied he was born in Kona on the Big Island, they allowed him to begin, seemingly mollified that Lewis was born in Hawaii and not out-of-state.
Residents said they were worried the tours' shark bait would artificially inflate the local shark population and change the ecological balance of the bay.
Lewis admitted his former employer on the North Shore used food to attract sharks. But he said they didn't use much.
"A couple of handfuls of bait — that's more than enough to reward the animals to come in close," Lewis said.
Lewis finally told the crowd "as of now" he wasn't moving forward with the shark tour plan. But he kept his options open, saying he'd like to take people out to see other marine life like mahimahi and barracuda in Maunalua.
It would be "more of a pelagic type of experience where sharks maybe are not the main attraction. If we're lucky we'd have a couple there," Lewis said after the town hall meeting.
Joe Pickard, whose company SeaHawaii offers dolphin and whale watching snorkel tours off Waianae, was one of Lewis' few defenders.
"If he wants to run his business, he has a right to," said Pickard, comparing shark tours to spearfishers because the latter also attract sharks.
Shark tours are also found in California, Australia and South Africa.
Two companies currently run shark tours from Haleiwa on the North Shore, charging about $100 per person. The boats can fit about 10 people on each tour, which are held about three miles from shore.
The Web site for North Shore Shark Adventures, where Lewis used to work, says: "See the beauty and splendor of Hawaii's sharks as they rise from the depths to greet you."
Many in the North Shore community opposed these ventures too, but the tours began before residents noticed and now they're big business, said Judy Fomin, an aide to state Rep. Michael Magaoay, D-Schofield-Kahuku.
Fomin said her granddaughter had to be pulled out of the water off Haleiwa when one of the shark tour boats returned to shore with sharks trailing behind.
Lewis said he never saw sharks follow his boats back to harbor.
It's illegal under both federal and state law to feed sharks for any purpose other than to fish or harvest them. But authorities say it's hard to prove allegations that tour operators are luring sharks with food.
Randy Honebrink, a spokesman for the state's shark task force, said the state opposes the tours.
"There is something about the idea of conditioning sharks to associate people with food that we don't like," Honebrink said.
There's also a chance feeding sharks will disrupt the ecosystem. There are unanswered questions about what happens to the shark population — and the fish and turtles they prey on — when humans feed them, Honebrink said.
Lawmakers say they want to make it harder for shark tour operators to exploit loopholes in the law.
Rep. Lyla Berg, D-Hahaione Valley-Aina Haina, said one option would be to ban shark cages.
Ed Underwood, director of the boat division within the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the state was considering requiring that all commercial businesses using Hawaii waters obtain a license. That would give the state some control over operations like shark tours.