Shark Spotters supporters program

We are proud to announce that we have signed on as official supporters of Shark Spotters. We are Silver partners, and for larger businesses there are higher levels of support on offer. (We are hoping to encourage some of the other dive centres to consider supporting Shark Spotters, too…) Individuals can also sign on to the supporters program, or donate in many different ways. Shark Spotters is part-funded by the City of Cape Town and the Save Our Seas Foundation, and the rest comes from public donations.

One of the Shark Spotters flags at Fish Hoek beachåç
One of the Shark Spotters flags at Fish Hoek beachåç

The Shark Spotters provide beach safety, a world-first environmentally friendly shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach, run educational programs at local schools, and conduct shark research in and around False Bay.

All of this work keeps both people and sharks safe, and this is at the heart of what Shark Spotters does.

The shark exclusion net has been around for about five years, and (unlike the gill nets in KZN) is specially designed not to pose a hazard to any marine life. It gets taken in every evening, to eliminate the risk of an animal becoming entangled at night when the spotters are not on duty. It is an extremely successful and popular feature of Fish Hoek beach, and is invariably packed with happy, safe swimmers during the summer months. If you’re curious about it, watch the video above to see what it looks like from underwater, and read more about it here, here and here.

The Shark Spotters info centre at Muizenberg
The Shark Spotters info centre at Muizenberg

Their research continues to illuminate the activities of white sharks in the bay, but is also in the process of shedding light on the interactions between white sharks, sevengill cowsharks and bronze whalers as they share the ecosystem. They have even published a recent paper (open access) on the predation of sevengill cowsharks by orcas in False Bay, which is well worth a read.

The Shark Spotters outpost at Caves (Kogel Bay)
The Shark Spotters outpost at Caves (Kogel Bay)

Currently, they’re partnering with a Swiss firm in a cutting-edge research project to determine how automated shark spotting, making use of cameras and machine learning algorithms, can augment the already impressive skills of the spotting team. By first training a sophisticated algorithm to distinguish between a shark, pieces of kelp, dolphins, wind chop, and all the other visual phenomena that a spotter comes across during the course of a day, it is hoped that a fixed camera system, with some software, could assist the spotters in their work. It is not intended to replace human spotters, but to augment and facilitate their work.

The Shark Spotters hut at Fish Hoek beach
The Shark Spotters hut at Fish Hoek beach

We’re happy to be contributing to the important work of Shark Spotters – if you’d like to as well, visit their website to find out how to lend your support, or drop me an email and I’ll connect you with the right people.

You need this: the Shark Spotters smartphone app

The Shark Spotters app
The Shark Spotters app

After a successful Back a Buddy campaign, Shark Spotters launched their free shark safety smartphone app in the summer of 2016. The app has had excellent uptake by water users of all stripes, but I’d like to draw it to your attention in case you aren’t familiar with the ways in which it can make your beach life better and safer! Whether you’re a surfer, a diver, an ocean swimmer, a beach comber, or someone who looks forward to long summer days under an umbrella on the sand, the Shark Spotters app can make a difference to you.

The list of Shark Spotters beaches
The list of Shark Spotters beaches

Shark Spotters operate at eight beaches around the Cape Peninsula: four (Muizenberg, St James/Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek & Caves, Kogel Bay) year-round, and another four (Glencairn, Clovelly, Monwabisi and the Hoek, Noordhoek) from October to April, during the warmer months.

The app allows one to set a home beach – you can see from the image above that mine is Fish Hoek – and when you start the app, you’ll get information for your home beach immediately. Tapping on the home beach block at the top of the screen (where it says “Tap for more”) brings one to a series of screens that you can navigate through by swiping the bottom block on the screen.

The information provided is extensive. You can see information on the last three shark sightings at your home beach, the weather and sea conditions (temperature, wind direction, tides, moon phase, swell), and information on what marine life is in the area. This latter information is not a nice to have so you can look out for dolphins from shore, but an important indicator of the likelihood of a shark being in the area. Dolphins, rays and schools of fish can draw white sharks, while sunfish (and even seals) may be mistaken for a shark when viewed from a distance by an untrained observer.

There’s also information on what facilities are available at the beach, and a short video for each beach, usually taken each morning, showing the prevailing conditions.

All this information is available for all the Shark Spotters beaches, not just your home beach, and you can view a different beach by selecting it from the list that appears under your home beach on the home screen.

Digging into the app, you can find a detailed list of all the recorded shark sightings, and in the settings you can turn notifications of sightings on or off according to your preference. I have them switched on, because I like to be reminded of a world outside the office.

Shark Spotters app menu options
Shark Spotters app menu options

The further menu options, shown above, give you access to a large amount of data about the Shark Spotters program, the exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach, how the flag system works, great white sharks, and more. Most of the menu options also provide links to more detailed information online, if you want to know more.

You can download the app for iOS here, for Android here, or use the download links from the Shark Spotters website. The app is completely free of charge, but Shark Spotters is funded by the City of Cape Town, Save Our Seas Foundation, and other generous sponsors, including individuals. Shark Spotters welcomes donations. Click here to donate.

Bookshelf: Life’s a Beach

Life’s a Beach: Your Round-The-Coast Guide To South African Beaches – Ann Gadd

Compliments of the season. If you’re contemplating which beach to head to for tomorrow’s traditional Boxing Day beach outing, a venerable South African institution, I have just the book for you. The product of a mammoth investment of time (which couldn’t have been all bad) and distance travelled, Life’s a Beach is a handy guide to (possibly, probably, almost) every single beach along South Africa’s coastline.

Life's a Beach
Life’s a Beach

Each pair of facing pages covers a stretch of coast, and beaches are rated for surfing, alongside information about swimming, kiteboarding, wake boarding, kayaking and canoeing, diving, fishing and hiking. The scuba diving information for the sites around the Cape Peninsula, with which I am familiar, is reasonable, but of necessity very abbreviated owing to the book’s format and primary focus. It goes without saying that you should seek out some local knowledge before diving in an area you haven’t visited before.

Unique experiences and best kept secrets (no longer – haha!) are highlighted, as well as the presence of braai and picnic facilities. Tips on where to go for sundowners are also included. Child friendly activities are mentioned where applicable, too.

Access tips, as well as warnings about rips, pollution, sharks (thank you Shark Spotters!) and whether a beach has Blue Flag status round off the comprehensive information that is provided in a handily concise manner. This book will be extremely useful when you’re visiting an unfamiliar stretch of South Africa’s coastline, and particularly invaluable when it’s a little known and less popular beach.

Get a copy of the book here, or here if you’re outside South Africa.

And if you’re going to the beach in Cape Town tomorrow, make sure you’ve downloaded the free Shark Spotters smartphone app. Get it here for your iPhone, and here for Android.

Article: Outside on shark repellents

A recurring but seemingly never-resolved question that intrigues shark researchers and management entities is that of whether there exists a reliable, non-lethal shark repellent.

Such a shark repellent would solve all manner of management problems: organisations like Shark Spotters exist partly to navigate that tense, thin line between sharks killing people and people killing sharks.

Furthermore, there would be a significant financial payoff associated with a successful patent of such a product. (I do not mean to suggest that this is the primary motivation for doing this kind of research, but untested, untestable products like this cannot possibly be marketed with anything else in mind.)

Life-size model of a white shark
Life-size model of a white shark

There are several ideas that have been either proposed, tested, or marketed. The SharkShield has been tested (not just by us), with mixed results. A shark repellent wetsuit has certainly been well publicised (there’s even a TED Talk), but, like medicines for pregnant women, I can’t see how it can be properly, ethically tested in order to state with some degree of certainty, in a statistical sense, that it works. The test described here has N=2, and there wasn’t a human in the suit.

I digress. Outside Online has an interesting article this month about the efforts by Eric Stroud, a pharmaceutical consultant, who – after much experimentation – settled on several compounds found in decaying shark flesh, which seem to work well as a repellent of about 30 species of mostly coastal sharks. The compound can also be synthesised, although the real thing, from a dead shark, apparently works better. Stroud’s financial backers travelled to Mossel Bay to visit Oceans Research, a multi-disciplinary research organisation with several shark scientists on its staff, to test the chemical on great white sharks. The article provides an overview of the history of shark repellent technology, and brings us up to date with this new chemical alternative. It’s early days…

Read the full article here. And remember, kids, that while the only thing that will keep you completely safe from a shark is not going into the sea at all, there are a bunch of simple, sensible things you can do to reduce your chances of meeting a man in a grey suit. Do them!

Sharks! MOOC videos (part II)

Here is a selection of the videos for weeks three and four of the recent Sharks! MOOC hosted on edX. You can find weeks one and two here. All the videos are available on youtube if you’re really interested – you can check out the channel containing all this year’s videos, or a giant playlist containing all the videos from the 2015 iteration of the course.

Dark shyshark on the sand at Long Beach
Dark shyshark on the sand at Long Beach

Week 3: Thinking like a Shark – Brains and Behavior

Introduction – thinking like a shark

General organisation of the nervous system

Brain regions overview

Brain size

Prey localisation

Seeing underwater

Eyes for deep water

Lateral line system and Ampullae of Lorenzini

Electric snouts

Group hunting – broadnose sevengill sharks – an interview with Dave Ebert on research he did decades ago on the sevengill cowsharks of Millers Point

Week 4: Sharks in the World – Human Interactions, Ecology, and Conservation

Introduction – sharks in the world

What sharks eat

Food webs

What eats sharks?

Deep water communities

Shark struck

The problem with shark nets

Why are aquariums important?

Husbandry

Industrial fishing

The art of Ray Troll

Sawfish DNA

Newsletter: Wishing winter away

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Boat dives from Simon’s Town jetty to Photographer’s Reef and Roman Rock OR shore dives at Long Beach

I know we are barely past the halfway mark of winter, but the last few warm and pleasant days have got me wishing summer was here.

Some swell and lots of south easterly wind are in the forecast for Saturday, so Sunday will be the better option for diving. We will aim for a later start to see how well False Bay fares during Saturday’s onslaught. If we decide to launch the boat it will be from the Simon’s Town Jetty at 9.30 and 12.00 and the most likely sites will be Photographer’s Reef and Roman Rock.

If the conditions aren’t boat-worthy on Sunday, we’ll shore dive at Long Beach.

An app for beach lovers

The Shark Spotters centre at Muizenberg
The Shark Spotters centre at Muizenberg

Shark Spotters, who do pioneering beach safety work and shark research in Cape Town, are crowdfunding a mobile app which will provide information on beach and surf conditions, shark and other marine animal sightings, and whether the Fish Hoek exclusion net is currently deployed. The app will be available free of charge. Watch this video for more information about the app, and give your support by donating here!

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

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The current form of the KZN Sharks Board

This is the third post in a (long, sorry) series about the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board. You can read the first post – in which I explain why I’m interested in the Sharks Board and what we know about it – here, and the follow up, describing its history and formal establishment, here.

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Act (No. 5 of 2008) repealed previous legislation pertaining to the Sharks Board. Its aim:

To provide for the establishment of the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board; to determine the objectives, powers, duties and functions of the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board; to determine the manner in which the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board is to be managed, governed, staffed and financed; and to provide for matters incidental thereto.

The act applies to “the control of shark safety devices in the sea, sea shore and sea-bed of the Province.” It repeals the 1964 Natal Provincial Ordinance that established the Sharks Board and which I wrote about in the previous post in this series. It is broadly similar to the 1964 Provincial Ordinance in many respects, so I will primarily highlight the differences between the two pieces of legislation (as far as my amateur legal eagle brain can discern them). Want to read the entire 2008 act for yourself? Download it here.

Curious cowshark
Curious cowshark

Powers, duties and functions of the board (Section 5)

This section is divided into things the Board “must” do (5.1) and what it “may” do (5.2). In many respects, including the section number, it is very similar to the 1964 Provincial Ordinance.

Must

The primary difference between what the Board is mandated to do by the 2008 act, but not by the 1964 Provincial Ordinance, is to

(b) endeavour to introduce schemes [bather protection gear] that

  1. will reduce negative impact on all biodiversity; and
  2. will enhance the survival of caught sharks and other marine animals;

(c) undertake research in order to –

  1. consider and determine the feasibility of applying new or known methods of protection against shark attacks; and
  2. determine any environmental impact arising from the implementation of any schemes or any methods of protection against shark attacks

There is nothing in the 1964 Provincial Ordinance suggesting any concern for the environmental impact of the Sharks Board’s activities. In this respect, the 2008 act is an improvement and perhaps reflective of increased environmental awareness that, some have contended, can be traced back to the “save the whales” campaigns of the 1980s.

The Board is to consider research and recommendations related to bather protection, and to take “reasonable steps” to raise awareness among bathers of the methods used to protect them, and of safety precautions that the bathers must adhere to. The Board is to make itself available to municipalities which are obliged to perform functions in connection with the ocean and the shore, inland waters, and emergency and lifesaving services. The Board may also assist municipalities with scientific research and studies.

A very important part of the act, which again differs from the 1964 Provincial Ordinance, states that the Sharks Board must,

in exercising its powers and performing its duties in terms of this Act –

  1. promote biodiversity and ecological integrity by striving to avoid, mitigate and reduce any negative environmental impact;
  2. do anything in its power to promote the sustainability of marine life;
  3. endeavour to use all dead sharks and other marine animals caught by the schemes implemented in terms of this Act, for scientific research

The Board is to, “where possible, release all live marine animals, including sharks, caught or affected by” the gear, and to keep accurate records of these animals.

May

The Board may liaise with any relevant institution regarding environmental matters, tourism and economic development in KZN. The Board may consult with any organ of state, organisation, institution, body or committee about any matter related to bather protection.

There are sections permitting the Board to enter into agreements, purchase/lease/hire equipment and property, dispose of worn out or useless equipment (with certain caveats). The Board may also acquire and dispose of interests in companies, partnerships and the like, subject to MEC approval, as well as enter into joint ventures. It may also register patents and trademarks, and buy and sell these at will. This may be important in the future, if the Sharks Board develops a non-lethal (or less lethal) novel method of shark mitigation.

The Board is permitted to “raise funds by any lawful means” including via acceptance of donations, bequests and sponsorships. Funds may also be in the form of “revenue derived from tourism levies and the use of permits”, and similar sources. The Board is permitted to charge fees for provision of services, as well as for “entrance into an exhibition or display of shark control resources by the Board”. This it does do.

Powers of the Sharks Board (Section 6)

This section enables the Board to develop and maintain bather protection equipment “as it deems necessary and practicable” for the safety of bathers. As in the 1964 Provincial Ordinance, the Board is empowered to go over the head of a municipality with which it cannot reach an agreement regarding the nature of the equipment to be used, or the basis on which the municipality is to remunerate the Board.

Composition, Functioning and CEO of the Board (Sections 7-21)

These sections beef up the content of the 1964 Provincial Ordinance but don’t really contain anything particularly interesting. They describe the members of the board, and what qualifications and experience they must collectively embody (someone on the Board must know about marine conservation, someone must be from the tourism sector, someone from a conservation NGO, and so on). The frequency of meetings and procedures for the board’s functioning appear in these sections, too.

Funding of the Sharks Board and Financial Matters (Sections 22-25)

This section is interesting, particularly in light of the information in this link to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation website. Until at least 1999, and probably a few years after that, the Sharks Board was supplementing its funding through the sale of curios manufactured from shark products. I see this is as a classic example of moral hazard, although I may be stretching the definition a little! (The usual example given of a moral hazard would be if an insurance company let you take out fire insurance on your neighbour’s house. This might create an incentive, if you didn’t have strong moral fibre, for you to burn down his property and collect an insurance payout. Here, substitute “sell shark products” for “take out fire insurance”, and “catch more sharks” for “burn down his property” to see what position this places the Sharks Board in.)

According to the 2008 act, the Sharks Board obtains funding from the Provincial Legislature, donations, income (for example from tours of its facility and curio sales), interest on investments by the Board, and fees received for provision of shark control services. It is explicitly stated that souvenirs and curios sold by the Board may “not contain any dead sharks or other marine animals, or part thereof, caught by the schemes implemented in terms of this Act.”

This ensures that the Sharks Board is not given an incentive (see how I avoided using the word “incentivised”?) to catch and kill marine life and removes a potential conflict of interest, between preserving marine life and making money from selling dead marine life. That is why this proposal met with such an outcry.

Dissolving the Sharks Board

Sections 26-34 cover general provisions. Section 29 states that “the Board may only be dissolved in terms of an Act of the Provincial Legislature.” Section 35 repeals the Natal Sharks Board Ordinance (No. 10 of 1964). Section 36 provides continuity between the Board established under that Ordinance, and by this Act. Section 37 states the short name of this act, which is the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Act, 2008.

In conclusion

Thank you for following along with this exercise in understanding the Sharks Board, its structure, and its obligations. One of the most important things that I have learned from diving (ahem) into the legislation and annual reports of the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board is that it is a legally constituted body, and for its function to change appreciably, or for it to cease operation (which would probably compromise bather safety in KwaZulu Natal), it would have to be legally dissolved. This fact should inform the approach that we take as concerned ocean people when it comes to directing energy towards protests, engagement with interested and affected parties, and other actions to reduce the shark fishing activity that the Sharks Board currently engages in.

My own half-formed view is that it may be productive to try to find ways to support the Sharks Board in its efforts to develop non-lethal shark repellents. An example of how you could be helpful in this regard would be writing to the City of Cape Town and DAFF in support of using Fish Hoek beach as the location for any future trials of the Sharks Board’s electrical shark repellent cable. Fish Hoek beach is far sharkier than Glencairn, and would provide conclusive results regarding the effectiveness of the cable far quicker than Glencairn has (the Glencairn test was largely inconclusive because no white sharks came by). It was excluded as a trial location because DAFF was concerned that the catches of the beach seine (trek) fishermen who operate in the area would be affected by the cable.

Another idea for how you can make a difference would be to engage directly, in a mature manner, with municipalities along the KZN coast to encourage them to reduce their dependence on Sharks Board gear. An example of such an engagement by Sharklife, which was reasoned, practical, data-driven and ultimately a success (and for which many will claim credit) can be found here. These things take time, effort and persistence, and results are incremental rather than spectacularly immediate.

If you have any other ideas as to how a citizen activist – thinking like David Helvarg – could have an impact here, I’d love to hear them.

(A different question, which each person must answer for themselves, is whether this is the area in which one can have the most impact, as a local activist – is it the best use of your energy and ability to make a difference for the ocean? You should read Saved By the Sea, or at least look up the Blue Frontier Campaign, which is explained a bit better on its wikipedia page than on its website, if this seems like a stupid thing to ask.)

The origins of the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board

This is the second post in a series of three about the KZN Sharks Board.

With increased use of Durban and South Coast beaches after the Second World War – numbers of swimmers and surfers increased exponentially – the incidence of shark attacks rose to the extent that, already in the 1940s, newspaper articles discussed possible “anti-shark” measures. Four shark attacks occurred in December 1957 (known as “Black December” by Durbanites), and by April 1958 a further three had occurred. Five of the seven attacks were fatal, and they occurred at the beach during summer – a crowded, public space. In the same way that the early 21st century shark incidents at Fish Hoek beach could be described as a “public trauma”, these attacks traumatised both Durban locals and holidaymakers from South Africa’s inland provinces.

The history of anti-shark measures and shark research in KwaZulu Natal is traced in detail in this Masters thesis by Melissa van Oordt, which, if you have an interest in the subject, I recommend you download and read. Van Oordt argues that myths about sharks, developed in the minds of the public following shark bite incidents along the Natal coast and fuelled by the media, drove the formation of the Sharks Board and the installation of the bather safety gear along the KZN coast. Sharks were characterised as “rogue”, “man eater” and “brute” – and the language used to describe them shaped the response.

The first nets were deployed in 1952 off Durban’s beaches by an organisation called the Durban Beach Committee, following the lead of  New South Wales in Australia (nets were set there in 1937). After 1964 the beaches on the South Coast were also netted. Other measures, such as helicopter patrols and setting off depth charges, were experimented with, but were found to be ineffective, too expensive and/or too destructive to other marine life.

(It is also worth mentioning that already in 1958 measures such as electrical and chemical shark repellents and mechanical barriers were under discussion. In 1968 -69 development of an electrical shark barrier had made such good progress that full-scale testing at a Natal beach was anticipated “in the near future” [van Oordt page 113]. It has taken over half a century for these ideas to begin to come to fruition, and there is still some way to go.)

Establishment of the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board

In 1964 the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board was legally constituted by Natal Provincial Ordinance No. 10, which is freely available from the National Library (this is where I got my copy). The board was formed as a body corporate, which meant among other things that it could “sue and be sued.” Its functions and duties included:

  • taking advice from, considering findings of, consulting with and calling upon scientific and technical research bodies or individuals on the subject of “bather protection against shark attacks”; and
  • considering existing and proposed bather protection schemes to determine their effectiveness, and improving or supplementing them where necessary.

Local government authorities would provide the Anti-Shark Measures Board with estimated expenditure figures for anti-shark measures, as well as plans for any “actual or proposed anti-shark scheme” to which the expenditure figures related. The Sharks Board would vet the schemes proposed by the municipalities, suggest improvements, and approve expenditure for the anti-shark measures. Approved bather protection schemes would be subsidised by the board by at least ten percent of the municipal expenditure.

The Sharks Board was also authorised in the 1964 ordinance to install bather protection schemes on parts of the coast that were not under the jurisdiction of a local authority, and where agreement could not be reached with a local authority regarding the nature of a bather protection scheme, the board was able to go ahead and install shark safety gear, and recover some or all of the costs of doing so from the municipality concerned. This is quite a significant power – I would be curious to know whether it has ever been exercised.

The Sharks Board’s source of funding was declared to be “donations and bequests received by it”, as well as funds “appropriated by the Provincial Council for the purpose” – in other words, funds distributed to the Sharks Board by the Natal provincial government.

The Sharks Board was thus established legally, with most of its funding coming from the Natal provincial government. It had fairly broad powers in terms of installing bather protection gear along the Natal coastline, and no particular prohibitions on what it could and could not engage in.

Changing attitudes

White shark making another pass
White shark in False Bay

Van Oordt describes how, in the 1980s, the Sharks Board began releasing live sharks caught in the nets, reflecting a changing view of sharks, and the environment in general, that had begun to emerge among scientists and the general public. In 1991, in a further concrete indication of changing attitudes to sharks, great white sharks were legally protected in South African waters, making it illegal to catch or kill them unless authorised by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Until fairly recently (at least until 1998 and possibly 2003) it was the case that:

The NSB sells certain shark products to defray expenses. Income from such sales is small relative to total expenditures. Products sold from the Board’s curio shop include shark teeth – sold either loose or with a jump ring for attachment to a jewellery chain – and entire jaw preparations. In addition, dried fins are stockpiled and sold, usually annually. Initially sales of fins were to local exporters by a tender process but the NSB is now investigating direct export. Fins and teeth from great white sharks Carcharodon carcharias are not sold because the species is locally protected. The meat from netted sharks is generally not sufficiently fresh for human consumption. Experimental inclusion of the meat in animal feed has been unsuccessful. [Source]

As we will see in the following post, such sales of shark products were forbidden by an act of 2008 which superseded the 1964 ordinance that established the Sharks Board. This, too, could be an indication of changing attitudes towards sharks and shark conservation in South Africa.

Fact finding about the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board (KZNSB) is frequently discussed, and often vilified, among ocean-loving South Africans. Rumour abounds; whole websites, devoted entirely to inaccurate speculation, exist. When the Sharks Board tested a shark repellent cable in the waters of Cape Town, starting in late 2014, I was frustrated by my lack of knowledge about how the KZNSB is structured, who funds it, and who mandates it to do what it does. Understanding these aspects of the Sharks Board’s operations could surely assist with moving towards a future where, if the Sharks Board still exists, it uses primarily non-lethal shark mitigation measures. (Unfortunately, no scalable measures suitable for the KZN coastline exist yet.)

Many people are concerned by declining shark populations, but many people are also concerned about their safety when they go for a surf or a swim. These groups overlap, but not wholly. The ideal shark mitigation measure combines bather safety with shark conservation. Examples exist, but they are rare. Cape Town’s Shark Spotters do an excellent job of striking a balance between safety and conservation, but what many commentators – who advocate deploying shark spotters at sharky beaches the world over – do not admit (or realise) is that Shark Spotters works because in Cape Town we have elevated ground close to the ocean, and great white sharks that spend a lot of time swimming on the surface when they are inshore. Take away one of those two crucial elements, and an already tricky job becomes exponentially more challenging.

What the KZNSB does

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board protects bathers in KZN with what are essentially fishing measures: 23.7 kilometres of gill nets and 79 drum lines are installed along 38 beaches in the province. These nets and drum lines catch sharks and other marine creatures. The nets are checked by Sharks Board employees, and live sharks (and other animals) are released. Sharks that don’t survive are used for a variety of research – the Southern African Shark and Ray Symposium in September featured at least six presentations based on samples and data obtained from the Sharks Board.

While it is legal (read carefully – I am not condoning the practice) for the Sharks Board to remove sharks from the ocean, it is no longer considered ethical for scientists who wish to study sharks to use lethal sampling methods – to go out and shoot a shark so that they can study its stomach contents, for example. This practice would also be illegal for sharks that are protected, such as great whites in South Africa (the Sharks Board is permitted to catch them, however). There is much about shark biology that can be learned from a dead shark – for example an understanding of its reproductive systems, its position in the food web, its diet, samples to determine genetic inter-relatedness of populations, and age and growth data can all be gleaned from a necropsy. Perversely, much of the scientific output obtained from these avenues of research is useful for shark conservation and management planning. This is why, when a shark washes up dead or is accidentally caught in the Western Cape, scientists are keen to learn as much as possible from a dissection.

The website of the KZNSB describes a number of measures that the Sharks Board has taken to reduce its catches of species other than sharks. In particular, entanglement of cetaceans such as dolphins and baby whales is (apart from the environmental impact and sheer wastefulness) a highly emotive issue and a public relations nightmare for the Sharks Board and they actively seek to mitigate this kind of by-catch. In 2014, only about 40% of “non-target species” caught in the nets were released alive (no whales were killed).

How does the KSNZB, an organisation whose activities have a potentially significant impact on shark populations, fit in with broader initiatives to take better care of South Africa’s sharks?

Shark Biodiversity Management Plan

Puffadder shyshark at Long Beach
Puffadder shyshark at Long Beach

In March of this year, South Africa’s Shark Biodiversity Management Plan was published by the Department of Environmental Affairs. It is a remarkable document and represents the culmination (and the beginning) of a great deal of work by a great many people. It deserves (and will hopefully get) a more detailed examination than this, but I have isolated the sections that pertain to the KZNSB because they shed light on how the KZNSB is characterised by the government, and on the pressures it is under.

In the South African Shark Biodiversity Management Plan on pages 13-14, the KZNSB is listed as an organisation that “actively support[s] the management and conservation of sharks”.

On page 29 the KZNSB is listed as a responsible party under part of the Biodiversity Management Action Plan, with things to do in order to effect conservation of sharks in South African waters. The KZNSB is to “research and implement methods mitigating by-catch (e.g. drum lines)”, high priority, to start within a year of March 2015 and to be completed within five years; and to “investigate alternatives to shark fishing systems”, with the same priority and timeline. We know that the KZNSB has been actively testing alternatives to nets and drum lines – their shark repellent cable test in Cape Town’s waters is a case in point.

Page 25 states that the KZNSB is “cognisant of the need to minimise the environmental impact on biodiversity, while striving to improve/evaluate methods that have a lower environmental cost.”

The piece of legislation (more on this later) that establishes the Sharks Board mandates the sharks board to consider alternative mitigation methods, to reduce environmental impact, and “enhance the survival of caught sharks and other marine animals.” The particular section of the act defining the Sharks Board’s mandate is quoted in the KZNSB 2014 Annual Report (pdf). The report also suggests (on page 23) that pressure from environmental groups is providing an additional impetus to the development of other bather protection strategies.

All this underscores the fact that the Sharks Board is expected to find alternative (non-lethal) shark mitigation methods, and is legally mandated to attempt to do so.

National Plan of Action for Sharks

The South African National Plan of Action for Sharks (NPOA) sets goals for the implementation of measures towards ecologically and economically sustainable shark fisheries, and aims to improve conservation and management of sharks found in South African waters. The KZNSB is mentioned on page 13 of the NPOA document, as a “directed shark fishery”, with a reminder that

In terms of the provincial KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Act, 2008 (Act 5 of 2008), the KZNSB is required to endeavour to introduce schemes that will reduce negative impact on all biodiversity. In addressing biodiversity issues the KZNSB has already reduced the number of nets, introduced drum lines, and has removed shark fishing gear during the annual winter sardine run.

The Sharks Board is thus recognised in its capacity as a shark fishery in the NPOA document and mandated to conduct itself as described above (a broad requirement), as well as a potentially important player in the conservation of South Africa’s sharks in the Shark Biodiversity Management Plan.

Concerns

On page 23 of the KZNSB 2014 Annual Report (pdf), it is noted that one of the “challenges” facing the Sharks Board is that “other organisations are also developing environmentally-sensitive shark repellent technologies which may compete with that being developed by KZNSB.” I don’t know how exactly to read this, but it seems that the Sharks Board is concerned that if another entity were to develop a shark mitigation technology that doesn’t kill sharks, this would be a bad thing for the KZNSB. I can only infer that this refers either to potential lost profits from licencing a KZNSB-developed product, or to costs that the KZNSB would potentially incur should they be forced to implement an environmentally friendly shark mitigation technolgy developed by someone else.

Either way, it establishes a strong financial motive – at least at top management level – behind efforts to develop non-lethal shark repellent strategies. While this impurity of motive may not warm your environmentalist’s heart, a quick scan of the KZNSB annual reports should convince you that it is more analogous to a corporation than to an environmental organisation or charity and it should be expected to operate as such. Individual motivations of staff and researchers within the Sharks Board may well be related to shark conservation, but the organisation as a whole must remain financially viable.

A news report in November 2014, to which I have not been able to find a follow up, quoted the KZNSB CEO as suggesting that the Sharks Board be able to sell shark meat, fins, and other curios manufactured from shark products (such as teeth) in order to raise funds. The difficulty with this suggestion – which is expressly forbidden in the 2008 KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board Act – is that it could create an incentive not to release live sharks caught in the nets, or for the Sharks Board to deliberately harvest sharks in order to turn a profit.

In summary

What I hope I have provided is an overview of some facts about the Sharks Board that can be obtained from publicly available sources, all of which I have linked to in the text. I will do two follow up posts in which I will look at the origins of the Sharks Board and the legislation (from 1964 and 2008) that gives it its mandate and legal structure. Do ways exist in which concerned, rational, ocean loving citizens can work to create a future in which the South African coastline is free of nets and drum lines? What kind of things should we support in order to make the whole of South Africa – and not just Cape Town – a world leader in shark mitigation techniques?

At the very least an understanding of the entity that is the Sharks Board may assist in determining whether a particular form of activism or protest about its activities is likely to have any effect. And if a form of protest is not going to be ineffective, regardless of the passion and enthusiasm behind it, those energies could be better spent on one of the many other threats to the marine environment.

 

Southern African Shark & Ray Symposium 2015 – first day

The view from the top of Red Hill, over SImon's Town
The view from the top of Red Hill, over Simon’s Town

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.

I was tweeting from the symposium twitter account, and along with some of the other attendees we produced a fairly comprehensive summary of each talk, along with some visual media. Here’s a link to the day one compendium as a pdf (quite large).