Sharks: Predators providing fear, wonder and a soup ingredient

Sharks generate different reactions and emotions from different people. They cause an adrenalin rush for cage divers, wonder for naturalists and abject terror for many others. For those at countless Chinese weddings their fins provide merely a flavourless soup ingredient. No other fish can cause such polarised viewpoints or, in the exceptionally rare event of a shark attack, so much media coverage.

Locals discuss the Fish Hoek shark net

South African shark attacks

According to the International Shark Attack File, between 1828 and 2012 there were 234 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks in South Africa, 52 were deadly. A fatal shark attack is a tragedy. Even if not fatal, an attack must be an unimaginably horrific ordeal but the risks can be exaggerated. 52 fatalities in 184 years, along a 2,700 km coastline, might not even be considered a “major risk” under excessively cautious European or American health and safety laws. However, there’s no denying that South Africa’s Western Cape has seen an increase in shark attacks in recent years.

Fish Hoek

Alison Kock is a researcher at Shark Spotters and we met at the Western Cape’s Fish Hoek beach. Although the presence of white shark off Fish Hoek is natural, their existence has had a serious and negative impact on local businesses, many of which rely on tourism. Fish Hoek is one of eight beaches benefiting from the Shark Spotters’ program of positioning spotters with binoculars above the beach. If a shark is seen the spotter radios a colleague on the beach, who sounds a siren and raises a flag. On 28 September 2011, Shark Spotters saw two white shark in the bay. They closed the beach and raised the flag. A swimmer who was known to have ignored previous warnings and beach closures ignored them again and lost his right leg to one of the sharks as a result. Aside the personal trauma, for a village dependent on tourism, the impact of shark attacks is huge. After an attack people call for action.

Alison was preparing for an inspection dive along Fish Hoek’s shark exclusion net, on its third trial day. The trial seeks to determine how the net will perform under different weather and sea conditions, its impact on marine life and whether it can act as a useful supplement to the existing spotting program. Alison stressed the difference between the Fish Hoek exclusion net which acts simply as a curtain and the nets of KwaZulu-Natal which are designed to purposefully catch shark, protecting people by reducing shark numbers. The Fish Hoek net has a mesh size, colour and configuration designed to minimise the odds of entangling any sea life. Even after the trial, the Fish Hoek net will be constantly visually observed by the Shark Spotters, removed each night and also during the day if it’s thought to be a risk to whales or dolphin in the bay. With any shark measure there will never be complete agreement but the community seem to be broadly behind it. Local fishermen are paid to put the net out each day. 

Shark Spotter Sarah Titley told me that she believes a problem to be that many people have a sense of entitlement to use the sea whenever they wish and that the work of Shark Spotters is to use pro-active measures to take the pressure off shark. Alison told me “if there is an attack people will say but what’s changed? Is it the cage diving? Are people swimming near the river mouth? Has there been a shark population explosion?” Although there has been an increase in shark attacks in the Western Cape the increase is actually because there are more people using the sea for recreation, at more locations along the coast and with more of us wearing wetsuits we stay in the water for longer periods.  We’ve increased our own odds due to our population growth and behaviour. It's not the sharks.

Human / wildlife conflict

Shark attacks are an example of what is described as human / wildlife conflict but there’s something very unequal about our use of the phrase. It might not be the most learned definition source but Wikipedia tells us 

“Human–wildlife conflict refers to the interaction between wild animals and people and the resulting negative impact on people or their resources, or wild animals or their habitat. It occurs when growing human populations overlap with established wildlife territory, creating reduction of resources or life to some people and/or wild animals”

 (my emphasis).

Man jumps over the Fish Hoek shark net

Man jumps over the Fish Hoek shark net

But I don’t think this is how people use the phrase. I think we only use it when humans  suffer a loss, such as by a shark attack, not when wildlife suffers a loss. In January 2013 footage emerged from Hong Kong of a gruesome roof top carpet made up of thousands of drying shark fins. The Huffington Post reported “campaigners believe more than 10,200 metric tons of shark fin were imported into Hong Kong in 2011” the South China Morning Post pointed out the “number of threatened shark species has soared from 15 in 1996 to more than 180 in 2010, mainly due to the growing Chinese demand for fins”. We kill over 70 million sharks a year for their fins, that sounds like conflict on a grand scale but human activities impacting animals are never described as conflict, even if they are widely condemned, branded barbaric or an unsustainable fishing practice. 

I frequently choose to take the very limited risk of surfing in Muizenberg, 5 km north of Fish Hoek, where I know and accept there are shark. In the exceptionally unlikely event I’m attacked it shouldn’t be considered “Human–wildlife conflict” it should be thought of as me having made an informed choice, choosing to enter the habitat of a wild animal and on that day it being the wrong choice. The Shark Spotters are watching and I pay attention to their warnings. Shark Spotters cannot stop attacks if people do not heed their warnings, as was the case with the Fish Hoek swimmer in 2011.  

Rather than seeing Shark Spotters as an organisation seeking to reduce human wildlife conflict, perhaps they are a body enabling us to more safely enter a dangerous place. The Shark Spotters' programs of conservation, safety, education and research are designed to allow us to enjoy entering the territory of naturally occurring dangerous predators. 

One swimmer seeing the exclusion net for the first time told me “I don’t like interfering with nature, it’s their world, but the netted area is tiny and unobtrusive, it’s a good thing.” As our human population increases there is increasing pressure to remove “problem animals”. It’s time for us to question the identity of the the real problem animals, maybe it's the people who chose to ignore the warning flags or expect everywhere in the world to be 100% safe for humans all the time at the cost of everything else.