Saturday, November 15, 2008

Spotting Sharks Through the Mess of Nets and Drumlines

I was absolutely gutted to hear from my dear friends Mark and Gail Addison that three tiger sharks were caught and killed in the nets off the coast of Aliwal Shoal. I spend my life fighting to save these creatures and their thoughtless and completely purposeless deaths are incredibly disheartening – especially in a country known for shark conservation.

South Africa is a country of extremes. While they have led the world in the protection of white sharks and it is illegal to harm a white shark, they also allow white sharks to be killed every year under the guise that it is required for the safety of its water users. The same is true for Tiger sharks who are a significantly threatened species and are even protected in Aliwal. And while South Africa has one coast protected by barbaric shark nets and drumlines (whose sole purpose is to kill sharks), they have also pioneered a program on another coast that allows sharks and people to peacefully coexist – in the exact same water.

News of dead sharks never comes at a good time, but coincidentally, this news was delivered as I was finishing my latest report for the Underwater Channel – exploring how people and sharks (in this case white sharks) can, and should, share the exact same water.

You see, while whites and tiger sharks are seriously threatened and are protected by many countries, including South Africa, many of these sharks are still killed each year by shark nets and drumlines.

What are shark nets?

Throughout the Eastern Coast of South Africa shark nets and drumlines are installed by Natal Sharks Board. Natal Sharks Board actually has a fishing license, and the purpose of these nets and drumlines are to kill sharks. Years ago, the nets were installed to appease beach users, who were panicked by a string of incidents on the beaches of Durban. Tourism was big money for the folks of KZN, and many lobbied to install nets to keep the sharks away from the beaches to keep the tourists happy. Surely the private organization installing the nets lobbied the hardest. And, ironically, most of these incidents were occurring where whaling stations were located as well (Hmm… dead whales near where people swim. Um, can we really blame the sharks?)

Until I saw them, like most people I think, I assumed shark nets were much like underwater mosquito nets, creating a harmless, and far-reaching barrier between the beach users and the sharks. This could not be further from the truth.

Shark nets are gill nets installed in tiered patterns – not fully extending to either the top or the bottom, and not fully enclosing the beach areas. While tiered, their installation often times seems quite random – and certainly does not enclose a beach. Many sharks are caught on the reverse side of the nets, meaning they have avoided them on the way in. Most are smaller sharks – as the larger ones have learned to avoid the nets. These smaller sharks don’t pose any risk at all – as they are not large enough to consume large fish, let alone humans (as if we were even on their menus.) And, the sharks that are caught tend to be those that are desperately threatened. Not incredibly effective, right?

You have got to hand it to the sharks who avoid the nets… When I swam next to the nets, it was only a few minutes before I managed to get completely entangled. Thankfully I had help nearby, but for a few desperate moments, I understood what it would be like to drown like a panicked shark, snarled in a mess of suffocating netting. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

For years, Natal Sharks Boards also finned the sharks they caught, turning a profit while keeping the beaches “safe”. Makes you wonder what the motivations truly are… To date, no one I have spoken to has confirmed this no longer occurs. Believe it or not, you can still attend weekly dissections of sharks – an attempt to show the public their work contributes to science and conservation. And indeed, many leading shark scientists in South Africa reportedly work for Natal Sharks Board.

As if killing the sharks weren’t enough, these nets catch a significant amount of bycatch. Dolphins, turtles, and even baby whales have been caught and killed by these nets. What’s the solution? Well, in Australia … Drumlines. Baited hooks complete with tasty tuna heads sure to draw the attention of the supposedly blood-thirsty and human hunting sharks, right? Sadly, the first part is true and the sharks are often drawn into the bait to meet their untimely and brutal end.

Now Natal Sharks Board has installed drumlines similar to those installed in Australia. These drumlines are targeting even more sharks – particularly protected species, like the White Sharks. And, they are resulting in more shark deaths. One may also wonder why you would attract sharks to the beaches with tuna heads. Yes, it seems odd… Rather than let them be than attract the sharks INTO the beaches with people swimming nearby, no?

In all the madness, there is a solution. A solution called “Shark Spotters”, an NGO that has been operating successfully in Capetown for several years.

Amazingly, in Capetown, THERE ARE NO NETS and NO DRUMLINES! Yes, there is a viable alternative to nets – without killing a single endangered animal. False Bay on the Western Cape of South Africa, is the largest bay in Southern Africa. And, we all know, thanks to several Seal Island/Shark Week episodes (as well as thanks to scientists like Shark Angel Alison) that the white sharks are present in strong numbers. But not only does this bay have one of the highest concentrations of white sharks in the world, it also has the highest concentration of water users.

Shark Spotters is an ingenious program that allows the white sharks and the water users to live in peaceful coexistence – without harm to anyone, including the sharks. Shark Spotters was actually started by a local surfer and shop owner, who wanted to increase the local surf traffic here at Muizenberg beach. These days it is run as a non-profit with sponsorship from many organizations including surf manufacturers, local groups, and international NGOs. And, Shark Angel Alison has just been appointed as the Director of Research for Shark Spotters.

Throughout the Western Cape, Shark Spotters sit high atop the hills flanking the beaches armed with binoculars and radios. Everything they need to “do battle” with the sharks. All day long, the Shark Spotters watch the shoreline looking for white sharks – who are known to frequent the inshore waters especially in the summer time.

When a shark is spotted, which is relatively easy to do given their size and their proximity to the surface, the Shark Spotter in the booth on the hill notifies the Shark Spotter on the beach. Then, the beach Shark Spotter sounds an alarm announcing the shark’s presence and also hoists a black flag with a white shark on it.

It is astounding to see the surfers and swimmers, quite accustomed to the alarms and the sharks, non-chalantly exit the water and await the “all clear” sign. No panic or pandemonium. Just a patient acknowledgement it is us human beings that the sharks are generously sharing their environment with, not the other way around.

Although I dive with them, I decided to put my money where my mouth is, prove I believe in alternatives to Nets and Drumlines, and learn to surf in the same spot that the white sharks are known to patrol. Yes, I often choose to surf in the waters that the white sharks hunt in. And never once have I felt threatened – without the existence of nets or drumlines. The only thing I am worried about is the temperature of the water – a FREEZING ten degrees celcius!

When it comes to sharks, the media feeds the frenzy, convincing the public they need to demand things like nets and drumlines to protect themselves. Not true. Just look at the statistics. During the past 47years, there have been a total of 4 deaths on the Western Cape attributed to White Sharks. That is one person every 12 years. Compare that to the 49 people that died last year due to lightening strikes, the 79 people that died due to hunting accidents and the 20 people that died due to dog bites. Seems like we ought be putting our energy into protecting ourselves from hunters, dogs and lightening – not killing sharks.

I am not by any means claiming to be an expert. Nor would I simply suggest the Capetown model would work in other places, with different types of sharks and topography. But, what I know is that there ARE viable alternatives to shark nets and drumlines and that we cannot keep unnecessarily destroying the very animals that keep our oceans – and us – healthy.

Many people, due to their irrational fears of sharks, think the world would be a better place without them. Sadly, that could not be further from the truth. Sharks sit a top the food chain, keeping our oceans healthy. Removing them would cause severe knock-on effects and would jeopardize our world’s largest and most important ecosystem – an ecosystem that gives us much of the air we breathe and food we eat.

The population of sharks around the world is plummeting, and their outlook is significantly threatened – particularly those targeted by the nets, including Tigers, Bulls and Whites.

Learning how to live with sharks and share THEIR home is so critical to their long-term existence. There is no reason to kill sharks under the guise that it is for our own good – or our own safety.

Instead of fearing these creatures, we should develop a healthy respect and manage the infinitesimal risk getting into the same water with these sharks is – through education, awareness and programs like the Shark Spotters. We cannot afford to kill one more shark unnecessarily – our long term existence depends on them.

1 comment:

Wolf Leander said...

Good blog, Julie!

Could you trim it a bit and send it as a press release to your press / media contacts in the US to get the word out?

I have been trying to drum up some support from both shark lists, and the reaction I had was rather disappointing, to say the least.

Olivia Jones was the only one willing to do something. Where are the other South Africans? I don't want to mention any names but do they really care or are they afraid to 'expose themselves'.

To be (for sharks) or not to be (for sharks) - THAT is the question.