• Lessons to learn

    • 22 April 2012
    • Published by

    The events of the last few weeks are still very fresh and raw, and I am sure that there will be many more statements, comments, theories, opinions and findings following the public relations debacle of the Ocearch research expedition in False Bay (and other locations along the South African coast) during the month of April, and the terrible loss of a local bodyboarder to a shark, on the eastern side of False Bay on Thursday.

    I have been planning to write this for several weeks, and thinking about the the points I wanted to make, I think they’re even more pertinent now. So here’s my list of things I think that we can take note of, or remember, from the last few weeks of media back and forth surrounding the Shark Men research in False Bay:

    Capetonians have strong feelings about “our” sharks. Some of us are protective of them and are suspicious of interference with the population around our coast, which explains the outcry when it was revealed (through various roundabout, accidental channels) that the former cast of the National Geographic Shark Men show was coming to Cape Town to hook, exhaust, remove from the water, sample, tag, release, and – it was thought, based on their track record elsewhere – potentially harm some of the white sharks that frequent Seal Island.

    Opposition to the Shark Men project came from others, too, such as surfers, who are generally fearful of the sharks, and have concerns and opinions around the use of chum (I wrote about this yesterday) to attract sharks to boats for ecotourism and research purposes. Whether these feelings and opinions are based in fact or not, they are heartfelt and it is disrespectful to ignore them or dismiss them without an informed discussion.

    There is not enough trust that the government will do what is in the best interests of both sharks and water users. This is born partly (and perhaps slightly unfairly since several different departments are involved) from a long list of high profile marine-related bunglings – the latest being:

    The City of Cape Town, on the other hand, has shown itself to be even-handed, fair, rational and willing to listen to scientific opinion when managing its facilities and resources. Here’s the City’s assessment of Thursday’s incident at Kogel Bay. It’s a breath of fresh air, I think!

    In almost all cases, too much information is better than too little. This follows on from the previous point. The history of official communication regarding activities in the multi-use area of False Bay is quite dismal:

    • the experimental whelk farming was kept under wraps – despite several locals raising questions about the nets being put up in Fish Hoek bay – until a shark died in the nets;
    • a local environmental reporter discovered and broke the story that the City of Cape Town was planning to implement an exclusion net (different from the gill nets off Durban that are designed to kill sharks, dolphins, whales, turtles, rays and anything else that swims into them) around a designated swimming area at Fish Hoek beach, thus forcing the City to release a statement regarding the net; and
    • the Department of Environmental Affairs was less than forthcoming regarding the Ocearch permit, and have spent much of the time on the back foot responding to allegations rather than volunteering information. The only official statement on the DEA website regarding the project is a response to a “shark alert” put out by a member of the public.

    In the case of the Ocearch project, I believe there would have been far less alarm and far fewer conspiracy theories had we known from the outset that some of our most respected shark scientists were involved and would be supervising the tagging activities. If the authorities are unable to cite any convincing research findings regarding the effects of chumming (although there have been several international studies, Dr Boyd was unable to recall any on CapeTalk on 13 April), then perhaps it would have been prudent to lay the available facts before water users regarding the forthcoming activities in the bay, and allow them to make decisions based on their personal tolerance for risk.

    One might argue that speaking too much about sharks from public platforms creates fear in people’s minds and brings them too much to the fore of beach and water users’ consciousness, but in my experience the general public will talk and think about sharks anyway. They are a reality of living on the fringes of False Bay, and even when there is no shark-related news, they are still in people’s minds. Providing facts gives the public a firm baseline from to discuss sharks, and being able to discuss issues of shark conservation, the risks to water users, and the effects of chumming with hard science to back it up will elevate the quality of dialogue among surfers, divers, beach users and all those Capetonians who think about sharks now and then.

    As I said yesterday, we will never put the shark bites and chumming question to rest until we do some hard science to figure it out. That means tagging sharks – lots of them – in False Bay, with tags that allow us to monitor their behaviour both in the short (critical) and long term. Who will fund this research? It takes millions of rands to do something like this properly. The Ocearch project may have gone some way to answering this question, but we will now probably never know how far.

    The science needs to be done carefully, for all the reasons I outline above. I thought the Save Our Seas statements regarding the recent research and subsequent incidents showed an extraordinary sensitivity to the complexity of the issues at hand. You can read the entire statement here, but in conclusion here’s an excerpt:

    Any activity with white sharks in the waters off of Cape Town should respect the delicate balance between humans and sharks. The best thing for shark conservation is safe beaches and bathers and it is important to work in these shared spaces with great care.

    Update

    A study has been done on the effects of chumming in False Bay – click here to read about it!

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