The first event to do this was a free speaker evening, held at the Bluebird Garage in Muizenberg on Monday 7 September. Hundreds of people attended; I took the photo above before the room got so full that no one could move!
Here’s a link to a collection of coverage of the events on Storify, and the same compendium is embedded below. There are also some images in there from the welcome evening for the symposium, which was held at the Save Our Seas Shark Centre in Kalk Bay.
The first, hosted by the staff of the Two Oceans Aquarium, was about safe and ethical handling protocols for sharks and rays. Scientists apply tags, take samples and measure animals in order to learn about them, and some contact is inevitable. It is vital to do all the work as quickly as possible, and with as little stress to the animal as possible. I didn’t attend this workshop, but comments from participants indicated that it was extremely useful and practical, with a hands-on section conducted outdoors.
The second workshop, hosted by the team from the Save Our Seas Shark Education Centre in Kalk Bay, was about science communication, which is dear to my heart. I tweeted quite a lot of detail from this workshop (keep reading…), and it was fantastically useful.
The final workshop was hosted by the Save Our Seas Foundation and its CEO Michael Scholl (also known as “the drone guy”!), and dealt with automated identification of sharks from the shape of their dorsal fins – FinPrinting! I didn’t attend this workshop either, and would be interested to hear more about it.
As for the first and second day of the symposium, I created a storify timeline that compiles tweets and images from the day. You can view it here, or read through it below.
Collaboration between scientists leads to amazing things, like the massive acoustic tracking system that covers the entire south and east coasts of South Africa.
You can tell a lot about what an animal is doing, without necessarily being right next to the animal all the time, with some clever technology and mathematics (yay maths!)
There are tiger sharks that are partially resident off Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique. They are being tracked and studied. Something to bear in mind next time you visit!
Sharks that cross borders (e.g. tiger sharks, great white sharks) are hard to conserve and face huge risks when they move out of protected areas.
False Bay’s great white sharks are incredibly well understood (great work has been done in the last 5-10 years), and at the same time the more we know, the more questions there are!
We are beginning to get a better understanding of sevengill cowsharks in False Bay and research is ongoing. Plus, did you know there’s a huge sevengill population around Robben Island?
Many of the shark and ray populations around South Africa’s talks are not comprised of separate groups of animals (e.g False Bay’s white sharks, Gansbaai’s white sharks and so on), but interbreed all along their range. This means you can’t protect one aggregation site and expect the species to survive and thrive – you have to think about threats along the entire range of the animal. This was a common theme in the genetics talks (which is a difficult subject to explain to peasants like me).
Juvenile hammerhead sharks aggregate in Mossel Bay at certain times of year! (This wasn’t the point of what was an excellent talk, but I was excited to hear it.)
We had exceptional conditions last Saturday and again on Tuesday, and I’m not just saying that because we had cake on the boat on both days… It was clean, cold and spectacular. It is the time of the year for that. This weekend, somewhere out there someone is going to have spectacular conditions… They are just not going to be near us. Sadly the forecasts have big swell from different directions, varied wind speeds and a different opinion on cloud cover. For us it mean we will not plan anything specific. We will however be ready to rock and roll on Sunday, at very short notice… If things change.
On a more serious note: check out the summaries of the talks presented at the shark symposium this week. It’s not often one gets such a good look “under the hood” at what work is being done, much of it right on our doorstep in False Bay, to understand sharks and how to protect them. There are many people, in science, government and industry, who are working hard on all sorts of shark-related things – like ways to keep humans safe from sharks without harming the sharks, ways to manage shark populations sustainably, and on understanding how sharks interact with the rest of the ecosystem. Clare has also written a short summary of the first day of the symposium if you want a broad overview.
Be sure to head down to the walkway between Muizenberg and St James to see a great outdoor underwater photography exhibition sponsored by Save Our Seas which is a tie-in to this week’s symposium. It’ll be there through the summer.
Earlier this week I had the great privilege of attending the 3rd Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium, which was held from 7-9 September at the Blue Horizon Estate above Simon’s Town. I am not a shark scientist (these days I am probably best described as a lapsed mathematician) but have an interest in the subject so I went to listen. If I had to provide some bite-sized takeaways from the first day of the symposium, jotted down without applying any of the science communication principles I learned at the workshop yesterday, it would be these:
Shark mitigation – avoiding negative interactions between humans and sharks – is HARD and a lot of smart people are working on the problem.
The City of Cape Town is a world leader in shark mitigation efforts, along with Shark Spotters. They really think about the problem, and care about both people and sharks.
If you are not blessed with high coastal terrain and surface-swimming sharks (which would permit a shark spotting program like Cape Town’s one), other shark mitigation measures are in the pipeline… From orca-patterned surfboards (and wetsuits?) to shark exclusion nets to large-scale electrical repellent cables.
The KZN Sharks Board catches a lot of sharks, rays and other animals in their gill nets and drum lines, and this is upsetting and far from ideal. But they facilitate an incredible amount of scientific study, too – their catches do not go to waste.
The KZN Sharks Board is committed to finding measures other than gill nets and drum lines to keep bathers safe, and they are actively working on the problem (refer to the electrical shark repellent cable I mentioned above).
Sometimes scientific research doesn’t look the way you expect or imagine. Ruth Leeney of Protect Africa’s Sawfishes spent months on the ground interviewing Mozambican villagers in the far north of the country to assess the population status of sawfish in Mozambique. She collected data that no one else could have obtained by other means!
Smaller, less charismatic sharks, like catsharks, need more love. There are also whole families of sharks that divers don’t see (such as dogfish) and hence aren’t really aware of. They are caught prolifically as by-catch and not much is known about them. But some smart people are working on this!
There are motivated, talented scientists working hard in South African government departments to protect our marine resources and making recommendations to manage them sustainably. (There’s also many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, but they are trying very hard.)
Technology – be it cameras, software, or tags – is enabling great leaps in our understanding of what’s out there, which will enable us to protect and conserve things better.
Ocean acidification as a result of climate change could affect sharks directly, by actually wearing away their denticles (tooth-like structures on their skin). Denticles protect sharks and help them to swim faster.
We felt quite sorry for them – November and December are historically months of appalling visibility and surface conditions in False Bay thanks to the south easterly winds that prevail, and November always seems to play host to at least one massive storm to top things off! Despite having to work with the worst of what False Bay has to offer, the two of them have produced some incredible images, and I’ve admired their persistence and creativity in dealing with murky visibility and adverse surface conditions. (You can follow them on facebook to get regular updates – Mac and Joris.)
Joris was on the boat just before Christmas, getting some of the final set of photographs that he needs for his reef fish story. On this particular trip he wanted to photograph fish on the hook: False Bay is the site of both commercial and recreational fisheries, land and sea-based. Our aim was to track down a Kalk Bay fishing boat that he’d worked with twice already, but they were nowhere to be found (despite being large and yellow, and despite us searching all the way down to Cape Point)! Hailing them on the radio was futile as they likely did not want to broadcast their position.
As a consolation prize, Joris and his personal shark spotter Brandon were able to spend time in the water with three recreational fishing boats. The first two were at Batsata Maze/Smits Reef at the southern end of Smitswinkel Bay. The crew of both boats were using handlines to catch roman and hottentot. The sea was quite choppy and working in close quarters to a pitching boat strewn with fishing lines was challenging. The fishermen were very kind and co-operative! Brandon’s presence was necessary because Joris was on the surface, absorbed in his work, next to boats that were hauling twitching fish onboard, and throwing back fish guts and bits of bait (basically chumming). All these things are very interesting to men in grey suits.
The third boat we found fishing with rod and reel on Caravan Reef, the large, shallow reef that lies close by to the south and east of the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg. We were now a bit further north in the bay, and the large swell that we’d experienced at Cape Point and Smitswinkel Bay had been modified and reduced on its path towards Muizenberg. It was calmer in the water, though the visibility was still only 2-3 metres. Joris was looking for split shots, with fish half in and half out of the water, and it seemed to be getting easier.
I had a great day tagging along on the boat, but my interest in the scale and nature of the fisheries in False Bay was piqued, and if I manage to find out anything of interest I’ll share it here. Did you know that both commercial and recreational fishermen visit the reefs that we dive on, and remove the fish that we like to look at? Those in the no-take zones are obviously exempt (apart from the occasional chancer or ignoramus), but we found commercial fishing boats inside Buffels Bay in the Cape Point nature reserve, close to shore. There was a fisheries patrol boat close by, but they were not prevented from fishing there. I found this puzzling and troubling, because when we visited the Cape Point reserve as recreational divers, we had to jump through a variety of bureaucratic hoops just to be allowed to drive a boat through the reserve with dive gear on board! Never mind taking fish out of the water! More to follow on this subject – and perhaps Joris’s story will also help us to understand this issue better.
South African Coasts – Sylvia Earle (contributor) et al
South African Coasts is an initiative of Sustainable Seas Trust, one of my favourite local non profit conservation organisations. You can read about their mission on their website, but in brief, they aim to care for the marine environment by caring for the people that depend on it. In South Africa, this is an eminently sensible approach, given the degree of inequality and disadvantage that is characteristic of many coastal communities.
Over a period of months, a photography competition was held with categories for everyone from happy snappers like me to professionals like Rob Tarr (whose amazing work features prominently in the book). Photographs had to be taken on the coast, or underwater. The best photographs, as judged by a panel of eminent South African judges including Fiona Ayerst and Peter Chadwick, were selected to appear in this book.
The result is a beautiful, remarkably high quality (given that people like me were allowed to submit pictures for consideration!) volume that can be read as a love letter from the people of South Africa to our 3,000 kilometre coastline. The book is organised thematically, with short essays by South African conservationists and adventurers at the start of each section. The foreword was written by Sylvia Earle, and the book publicises the establishment of the first few Hope Spots along the South African coast.
One of my favourite aspects of the book is the pages which feature twenty or more pictures of waves, or sunrises, or sunsets, arranged in a grid. Each photographer is credited for their work, and the location at which the image was captured is recorded. This is a beautiful souvenir volume for all the contributors, a great gift for ocean-loving visitors to our country, and – for me – a compendium of ideas for new places on our coast that I have yet to visit.
Given the time of year, we can expect fair conditions in False Bay, but we will have to wait a month or two for conditions to improve significantly. For now we still need to contend with some swell and a fair bit of wind. For the weekend I reckon Sunday will be the better option, and we will launch from Simon’s Town jetty for the SAS Pietermaritzburg at 8.00 and then Outer Photographer’s Reef at 11.00. We’ll hope that the pod of nearly 20 orca spotted in the bay earlier this week is still around…
We were astonished to encounter a grader on Long Beach this morning, moving sand from inappropriate places back onto the beach. Unfortunately it had created a huge band of muddy water that interfered with our plans for a navigation dive for the Advanced course currently on the go! Better luck tomorrow.
This is a big idea book – perhaps best to compare it to a TED talk, only more substantial. It is structured around four types of fish: salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod. The history of humans’ engagement with these archetypal families of fish enables Paul Greenberg to plot the trajectory of the possible futures we face, feeding ourselves from the ocean.
All four fish – salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod – have been fished to within a hair’s breadth of extinction. The story of cod is perhaps best known, from its original exploitation in the North Atlantic – beginning 1,000 years ago – to the catastrophic failure of the fisheries on the eastern seaboard of North America in the last several decades of the 20th century. Greenberg repeatedly cites and pays homage to Mark Kurlansky’s deceptively slim volume on the subject of cod (Cod), and to some extent this book capitalises on Cod‘s popularity.
Greenberg’s interest, however, is not primarily with the failure of the cod, tuna and salmon fisheries (largely as a result of failing to follow scientific advice in setting quotas – read: rampant greed). He is concerned more with the possibility of farming fish in a commercially viable, sustainable manner. There are lots of problems with fish farming, such as parasites and diseases spread from farmed fish to their wild counterparts, and Greenberg visits a number of aquaculture operations to discover whether sustainable practices that do not harm wild fish are possible.
Ultimately, Greenberg urges us to view fish as wildlife. As scuba divers we are accustomed to thinking about fish this way. We venture into their territory in order to experience them in the wild, and many of us feel outrage when certain types of fish (I have in mind sharks and perhaps tuna) are caught – albeit in perfectly legal fisheries. Greenberg wants us to extend this outrage, or at least recognition that fish are perhaps “the last wild food”, to all kinds of fish. The implications of thinking about fish this way would be that we eat less wild fish, saving it for special occasions, or do not eat it at all. (Perhaps, like Sylvia Earle, those of us who have the luxury of choice in the matter should stop eating fish entirely.) We have managed to execute this mind shift with whales in the last 100 years. The challenge is to extend it to the rest of the ocean’s finned inhabitants.
Greenberg suggests that the sustainable way for fisheries to continue into the future is for fishermen to assume the role of herders – custodians as well as harvesters of the fish. He further contends that we should not try to domesticate (farm) tuna, salmon and most other species that are already considered food fish. These fish have such a high feed conversion ratio (the number of kilograms of food – mostly comprising smaller fish – they need to eat to produce one kilogram of body weight) that farming them results in a net loss to the fish biomass in the ocean. Similarly, tuna ranching (capturing young tuna and raising them to maturity in pens) is also not a viable “farming” technique, as not only are wild fish being removed from the ocean, but they are denied the opportunity to breed. We need to start considering compliant, easily cultivated fish such as tilapia, kona kampachi (Almaco jack) and barramundi as menu options.
There’s a New York Times review of Four Fishhere, and a Huffington Post review here. A TimeMagazine story on fish also borrows heavily from Greenberg’s work.
You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. If you have a SASSI card in your wallet or even the slightest concern about food security, personal ethics and ocean conservation, you ought to read this book.
… use all means at your disposal — films, expeditions, the web, new submarines — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas; Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the blue heart of the planet.
It is therefore not surprising that Mission Blue, a global initiative to establish Hope Spots all over the planet, was the response to Dr Earle’s wish. There are are to be six Hope Spots in South Africa, with new ones (False Bay! False Bay!) being announced on a regular basis. The Sustainable Seas Trust is locally co-ordinating the establishment of the South African Hope Spots.
This book is a commemorative volume that accompanies the Hope Spot initiative (there is also a companion film that I haven’t gotten my hands on yet). Each of the seven chapters commences with a short essay by Dr Earle, reflecting on her long life lived in close relation to the ocean. She outlines the marine conservation challenges and priorities that should engage us today. As a woman scientist beginning her career in the 1950s and 1960s, she has faced the challenge of forging a career for herself during a time when it was considered humorous and clever to belittle women’s contributions through sexist language (I refer you to Mad Men for an accurate depiction of the milieu). She recounts the story of her first week-long stay in an underwater habitat, in the company of a group of female scientists. Upon their return to dry land, news of their adventure flooded the newspapers. Instead of being referred to as “aquanauts”, like their male counterparts, the female scientists were called “aquabelles” and “aquanauties” in the press.
The bulk of the book, however, is visual, and comprises photographs by a veritable pantheon of underwater photographers, including Paul Nicklen, David Doubilet, Thomas Peschak, Brian Skerry, and Alexander Mustard. The photographs are interspersed with quotes from poets, actors, scientists and other thought leaders (I don’t mean to imply that actors are thought leaders).
This is a beautiful book – a worthy addition to the library of underwater photography aficionados and Sylvia Earle fans. (I am the latter.) You can get it here or here, and if you’re in South Africa try here.