Mummy, mummy, look at me with a butchered shark!

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board opens on three days a week to allow visitors, for a fee, to watch a shark be hacked to pieces. On arrival there’s a video presentation. Then, so says the website, “the shark dissection is a natural follow on”. I’d not realised carving up a dead animal at a public autopsy would be a twenty first century “natural follow on” to the Disney style cartoon sequence shown earlier in the visitor centre; it was my first lesson of the day.

A charming holiday snap for the family album

Shark nets 

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board has protected bathers from shark attacks for decades. The origins of their work date back to the 1940s and 1950s, an era when Durban experienced seven fatal shark attacks in eight years. The city’s solution, back then, was to implement a system of large-meshed gill nets. The same approach is still used today. There are now around 24 km of nets protecting bathers along the KZN coast, which are similar in style to those early measures.

Before going to the autopsy I spent a morning on some of Durban’s protected beaches. I asked fifty beach users how the shark nets worked. The response of sun worshiper, Shane Pillay, was typical. He looked perplexed by what he clearly thought a dumb question. “Well the nets block the sharks from coming to where we swim - don’t they.” He seemed quite convinced of this. Most people I spoke to shared Shane’s view. They’re wrong.

The Sharks Board’s nets are not physical barriers enclosing a safe swimming area. Sharks can swim under or around the nets with ease. This is because the nets are neither connected to the shore, nor to the seabed. If that seems surprising, when most people imagine the nets as a barrier against sharks, that’s because most people have no idea of the system’s design. The nets are not barriers, they are fishing devices designed to catch sharks.

In addition to the nets the coast is protected by 79 drum lines. These are anchored floats with hooks which the Sharks Board specifically baits to catch sharks. It’s not a particularly complicated methodology: bring the local shark population down by fishing for them. This in itself is pretty startling stuff, coming from an agency one is inclined to believe to be engaged in conservation. But it gets worse. Not only do shark nets catch and often kill sharks, they also entangle many other animals. Between 1 April 2011 and 31 March 2012 the Sharks Board caught 582 sharks, 6 whales, 22 dolphins, 60 turtles, 183 rays and many other harmless creatures.

Public autopsies

Dead shark are collected during the Sharks Board’s patrols and brought ashore. Some will be used in autopsies which the public, including children, attend. As I watched the shark being butchered I recalled a comment by a reader of a previous article about how our connection with sharks highlights our often Victorian attitude towards nature. The Victorians had inconsistent views on the natural world. They were fascinated by exploration and it was of course a Victorian, Charles Darwin, who formulated the basis of our understanding of evolution. On the other hand the Victorians thought they were members of the superior species which could, and should, tame and control the natural world. We might like to think we’ve progressed our views, but I’m not sure we’ve gone as far as we’d like to think.

How long is a copper shark's stomach? An employee jokes it can be worn as a stocking in this "educational" experience

As the public gallery laughed at shark intestine jokes I thought it wasn’t just the local approach to sea safety, killing sharks, which seemed Victorian. I had actually paid to go to a public autopsy, it seemed like the best example of Victorian “entertainment” I could think of and it was only possible because of the species being cut up.

No-one would have laughed at the joke offering of a meat filled doggy bag had it not been shark meat. Parents would hardly take their children to the autopsy if the cadaver on display was one of the dolphins killed in the Sharks Board’s nets.  ”They killed Flipper, Dad!” would have been the likely wail from children’s mouths. Flipper, the aquatic hero of Hollywood does not get sliced up, not even for the sake of education. I learned very little in any event, other than the approximate length of a copper shark’s stomach (check out the picture if you think it matters).

The educational value of the experience is perhaps exaggerated to justify visitors’ attendance and the Sharks Board’s entire approach. The shark autopsy is undertaken in front of boards with the words “Conservation efforts” displayed on them. Just saying it does not make it true. I was reminded of the infamous Nisshin Maru, the Japanese whaling ship, which has “RESEARCH” emblazoned on its side. Other possible approaches to limiting the risk of human shark contact were not discussed.

 One of the feasible alternatives to consider is something I’ve written about before (click here) - the exclusion net currently undergoing a trial in Cape Town. Exclusion nets are specifically designed as physical barriers and not fishing devices. They completely enclose safe swimming areas and use a fine mesh, designed to prevent the capture or entanglement of sea life, and stretch from the seabed to the surface. In addition to the exclusion net, Cape Town has Shark Spotters positioned at strategic points along the coast, who sound a siren and hoist a warning flag should shark be seen. With this approach sharks are not relegated to being a species which gets in our way at its peril. It’s a modern day solution, quite unlike that of the Sharks Board in Durban. I wrote to the Sharks Board asking for a comment on why they couldn’t undertake a similar trial but received no response. 

 "Conservation efforts" This shark didn't know being sliced up was aiding shark conservation

Updating Victorian Mind-sets

The impact of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Sharks Board’s nets, in comparison to other human impacts on sea life, is numerically minimal; of more significance is the dated mind-set which supports its style of operation. We still think our interests trump those of all other species and that the ocean should be made safe of naturally occurring predators, simply so we can have a dip.

In 1901, at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, the global human population was a quarter of what it is today. The South African population was around a tenth of today’s total. Our relationship to our environment must change, too. With so many more of us it’s imperative that we update our attitudes to allow for other species, most of which are under human impact pressures.

I’ll leave the last words to the Sharks Board which, during the video presentation, highlighted how we must remember that “every time we set foot into the ocean we are invaders in their world”. Quite. Given that point, perhaps it would be a more mature and less Victorian approach for people to take responsibility for their own choice whether or not to enter the sea, and to adopt measures like those in Cape Town which are not based on the premise that human interests always trump those of everything else.

Sharks Board fishermen check the nets

This is one of a series of a hundred articles highlighting the impacts of population and consumption growth in South Africa. Click here to like the Facebook page to make sure you don’t miss the next one.

Thanks to Jean Tresfon for the underwater copper shark photos. I was lucky enough to free dive with Jean (and harmless copper sharks) earlier this year on the sardine run. You can read about it by clicking here.