Humans are almost never the victims of great white sharks, but great whites are always the victims of our mythology about them.
And that mythology is doing damage to their species. “Statistically shark attacks remain one of the lowest annual causes of human injury and fatality by wildlife globally,” says Gregg Oelofse, head of environmental policy and strategy for the City of Cape Town.
“Yet they retain extraordinary high media and public interest.”
Contrary to popular belief, shark attacks are not increasing in South Africa and neither are great white shark populations. Over the past 30 years there has been no increase in attacks. Between 1985 and 1994, 71 incidents occurred; 65 incidents from 1995 to 2004 and 71 incidents from 2005 to date – in total an average of 6.9 encounters a year. An encounter is not necessarily an attack.
In July an Australian pro-surfer, Mick Fanning, had a rare encounter with a white shark while surfing the finals of the J-Bay Open. An overly curious shark moved in a little too close and became entangled in the surfboard’s leash before being frightened off. No harm came to shark or surfer, but the encounter was labelled as an attack and made headlines around the world.
This kind of media frenzy coupled with misconception sends waves of panic along coastlines resulting in false opinions and urgent calls for tough safety solutions. Of course people do get bitten.
In June two great white attacks – one day apart – occurred along the Garden Route. But considering that people are swimming in the shark’s pantry, an attack from time to time is inevitable. They are predators. Even if you swim in the sea, however, you’re statistically more likely to die from a bee sting than a shark attack. The media hype has given rise to the impression that the numbers of great whites are growing and that sightings are becoming more frequent. But according to population assessments done in 2013 by the Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT) in Gansbaai – a white shark hot spot – great white numbers remain low.
“There is no evidence of a tangible recovery in the numbers of this species,” says the report. It noted that an estimated population of 908 individuals visited the region that year, as opposed to about 2 000 in the early 90s when a previous survey was done.
Far from a finding of increased shark numbers, the report expressed concern and recommended that IUCN move the species red data listing for great whites from vulnerable to threatened.
“In False Bay over the past 10 years people started noticing more great whites,” says Chris Fallows of Apex Shark Expeditions in Cape Town. “But it is the same sharks being seen all the time. It’s just that these days there are many more people on the water plus shark spotters, so there is more chance of sharks being seen.”
Data collection, using acoustic and satellite tracking, began in South Africa 10 years ago and although great white sharks are one of the most tagged species in the world, very little is yet known about them.
In addition to population numbers, their lifecycle and breeding patterns remain largely unknown and no pregnant females have ever been recorded in Southern African waters.
This – coupled with heavy pressure from fisheries, marine ecotourism, pollution, bather protection and climate change – adds to the vulnerability of the white shark species.
Although great whites are legally protected in South Africa, little is done to enforce this law. Only one fisherman has been tried and sentenced for catching a white shark since legislation was passed more than 20 years ago.
Adding to this is the need for international co-operation. Since white sharks are migratory, local legal protection ends once they move up the coast to Mozambique where they can be legally hunted for trophies and food. Killing marine apex predators has detrimental effects on marine eco-systems.
The less we know about the iconic great white shark, the more its species will continue to be under pressure. And the more we trespass on their territory, the less room there will be for them to perform their vital role in marine biodiversity. It’s time to deconstruct the mythology. Great whites are our close neighbours and we need to afforded them that respect.