Black Shark Spotters flag flying at Fish Hoek indicating poor visibility

Lecture: Christopher Neff on the politics of shark attacks

One rainy Thursday in June Tony and I attended the first of what will hopefully be a monthly series of talks at the Save Our Seas Shark Centre in Kalk Bay. The speaker was Christopher Neff, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. Chris is doing his doctorate on the politics of shark attacks, and was in South Africa to learn more about our Shark Spotters program (and to meet some great white sharks).

He spoke about his doctoral research, and described how perceptions of risk and other factors influence government responses to shark attacks. I was struck by a couple of things:

It isn’t all Peter Benchley’s fault

Sure, Jaws demonised sharks and I don’t think Peter Benchley is wrong to feel some residual guilt about the ensuing panic and slaughter of creatures assumed to be bloodthirsty maneaters. The phrase “shark attack” – as opposed to the previously popular “shark accident” – was invented in 1929 by Australian surgeon Sir Victor Coppleson. He mounted a one man crusade, alerting people to the dangers of sharks, in response to a fatal shark attack off Sydney that year. He published a book on the subject of shark attacks in 1958, and was considered a world authority on the subject. Shark nets were installed on the beaches of New South Wales in the early 1930s in response to the findings of the Shark Menace Committee appointed to study the issue of human-shark interactions.

Shark spotters is unique

We’ve posted before about Cape Town’s Shark Spotter’s program on this blog, and I consider myself fairly familiar with its workings, but Chris’s talk shed new light on the program’s importance and singular success.

I was particularly struck by the uniqueness of the Shark Spotters program in the world. In response to the fatal 1929 Australian attack mentioned above, a program functionally identical to our Shark Spotters (observers watch for sharks, and warn bathers to exit the water) was proposed. The program never took off, and the reasons for this – chiefly stemming from a lack of agreement by stakeholders and their conflicting aims – form part of Chris Neff’s PhD studies.

In other countries (such as Australia) and even in parts of South Africa (Durban), shark nets are popular and are widely considered to be very successful. Brazil used hooks laid on the ocean bottom near the beaches, and Hawaii has recently taken down all the interventions that could kill sharks in order to protect humans (nets among them, I think).

The Cape Town Shark Spotters program was started in 2004, and since then just under 1 000 sharks have been spotted in the waters around the Cape Peninsula. The proposal to start the program succeeded where the 1929 Australian proposal did not, for several reasons:

Strong backing

The City of Cape Town, surf lifesavers, the trek fishermen, and community groups all backed the proposal. South Africa has a strong history and cultural ethic of wildlife conservation, and the proposal for a shark spotting program dovetailed nicely with this.

Agreement among proponents

It was agreed that any management program should address all the problems raised by human-shark interactions:

  1. altering human behaviour
  2. restoring confidence to enter the water
  3. conserving the sharks

The shark spotting suggestion deals with all of these issues equally well. (Shark nets, for example, answer the first two concerns but not the third one.)

Feasibility

The local trek fishermen have been watching for sharks from the top of Elsie’s Peak for decades. They had thus proved the feasibility and affordability of the solution.

Trek net fishermen at Muizenberg
Trek net fishermen at Muizenberg

(Tony took the picture above from the top of Boyes Drive, next to the Shark Spotter’s hut.)

Comprehensiveness

Shark Spotters answers public concerns about going into the water, as well as environmental concerns, because no sharks are killed as a preventative measure. Shark Spotters use a siren to encourage people to get out of the water when a shark is sighted, and provide them with information when visibility is too poor to identify sharks in the water (via a black flag – see the image below). Hourly water use around shark warnings indicates that the public has developed a high level of trust in the program, as surfers and swimmers return to the water when the all-clear signal is given. (Initially this was not the case – the beach would empty after a shark sighting.)

Cape Town’s topography and ocean conditions make it uniquely suited to this type of effort. There are elevated geographic features such as hills and mountains from which observers can watch for sharks, and the water is clear. Durban installed shark nets over 50 years ago, and while the bycatch is appalling (dolphins, turtles, etc) this seems to satisfy the stakeholders that Durban’s large number of water users, drawn by the warm waters lapping the coast, are protected. What’s more, the tiger and bull sharks common on the KZN coastline are not endangered, whereas the local great white shark is. A shark net solution for Cape Town would fly in the face of all conservation principles.

Black Shark Spotters flag flying at Fish Hoek indicating poor visibility
Black Shark Spotters flag flying at Fish Hoek indicating poor visibility

Tony and I appreciated Chris’s philosophy on information sharing, and particularly his comment in closing that “while my research is independent, the funding is not.” Too much research is conducted using donations from the public, and then kept secret. Unless you paid for the research yourself, it’s not yours to keep! We’re grateful to Chris for sharing.

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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