Shark report a sober voice on an emotive issue

CAPE TOWN – The City of Cape Town, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and WWF today released a report that is aimed at finding a practical and workable balance between increasing recreational safety in the inshore waters of Cape Town, whilst minimising the impacts on the endangered Great White Shark and Cape Town’s spectacular marine environment.

The report encapsulates recommendations made at a workshop of shark experts, recreational safety specialists and responsible authorities, held at the end of May in Cape Town.

The workshop saw the submission of 15 papers on issues ranging from recreational trends and safety, shark ecology and behaviour, potential shark deterrent measures, and possible
contributing factors to shark attacks in False Bay.

Dr Deon Nel, head of the WWF Aquatic Unit and facilitator of the workshop, said: “Sharks are obviously a highly emotional issue for many people, especially those who love the ocean and
use it for recreation or to earn a living.

However, at this workshop we gathered the most knowledgeable experts on the issue to objectively review the best available knowledge and formulate a list of recommendations that can pave a practical and workable way forward on this issue, that is based on science and not conjecture.

One of the important decisions to emerge from the workshop is the proposed extension of the Shark Spotter Programme to at least six False Bay beaches by this summer.

The programme, currently operational at Muizenberg, St James and Fish Hoek, will be extended to Mnandi, Monwabisi and Blue Waters. A roving team will also operate in areas of
shark activity or where there are plenty of people in the water.

So far the programme has proved very effective in warning bathers of sharks in close proximity and beaches have been closed when necessary. The programme provides work to previously disadvantaged individuals employed as spotters and the information they collect will help refine our understanding of shark behaviour.

Another key conclusion of the report is that shark nets of the sort used by the Natal Sharks Board will have reduced effectiveness and much higher environmental impacts in False Bay
compared to the KwaZulu-Natal coastline. This is due to the fact that White Sharks are far less localised and resident compared to the shark species prevalent on the east coast.

Shark Spotter at Fish Hoek Lookout

Shark nets would also entangle Southern Right Whales, seals, dolphins, and other species. Entanglement of whales in nets will not only result in a slow death for these animals, but will
render nets ineffective for these periods.

The workshop also examined several purported causes of increased shark attacks that have found their way into the media and public arena. Perhaps the most controversial of these is the possible link between the cage diving industry and risk to bathers in False Bay. The workshop was in agreement that that there was no evidence or logical link – based on our knowledge of conditioning of animals – to substantiate this theory.

The workshop did however, conclude that it strongly opposed the deliberate feeding of sharks, which is in direct contravention of the shark diving operator’s regulations. To ensure better compliance with these regulations, the workshop recommended a number of measures. The most important of these was the need to develop an independent observer scheme for these vessels.

Gregg Oelofse, who represents the City of Cape Town on the Shark Working Group, said: “A Draft City Policy and Strategy on Coastal Recreational Safety has been put to the City Portfolio Committees. That policy is based on five key themes: shark mitigations, enforcement and compliance, emergency response, education and awareness, and research.”

Nel concludes: “We view the vigorous debate around this issue as a very healthy sign. The fact that so many people have become engaged in this debate obviously means that many people care greatly about the management of our oceans. However, the issue remains highly emotive and shrouded in many myths and misinformation. We hope that this report will help to make available as much scientifically-based information as possible as well as the views of South Africa’s – in some cases the world’s – most highly regarded experts.”

The report includes several fact sheets and practical guidelines for ocean users on how to reduce the risk of a shark attack.