SA White Shark Numbers Plummet
Melissa Reitz
31 August 2016

SA white sharks numbers dropping

Recent results of a population count of great white sharks around the South African coast have shown that the survival of the species is in a critical situation, reigniting the debate around cage diving and the role it plays in shark conservation.

 A study led by Sara Andreotti, of Stellenbosch University, has found that the protection afforded to great whites in South Africa over the past 15 years is failing.

Only about 500 remain along the coastline – half the number counted by the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board in 1996.

 The study, which used photo identification and genetic testing, found that with a mere 300 breeding adults left, the lack of genetic diversity has become a significant concern and may lead to extinction of this elusive apex predator.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) has issued a statement calling for a review of the baited shark diving industry of which there are 12 independent companies operating between False Bay and Mossel Bay.

“Although the (shark diving) industry claims to support and expand shark conservation efforts, it is often not clear how these are benefiting the various shark species in South African waters,” says the statement. They go on to say that until policies and regulations have been revised a “precautionary approach” is needed.

EWT says the shark diving industry uses “sensationalism” and “fearmongering” to promote dives rather than promoting education and conservation of sharks.

Shark experts and cage diving operators have rejected the claim, saying the EWT is basing its statement on misinformation and outdated research.

“It is short-sighted to throw a blanket of disapproval over this industry,” says Chris Fallows, of Apex Adventures.

“Cage diving is the main reason there are still white sharks in South African waters. It is we who have informed the government of poaching, illegal operators or poorly conducted research on sharks. We have provided funding for many of the most comprehensive research projects that have taken place.”

Kim MacLean, chairwoman of the Great White Shark Protection Foundation, and founder of the shark diving industry in Gansbaai, disputes the EWT’s claim that it does not educate: “Clients arrive at briefings in fear and the Jaws music echoing through their minds. But on their return it’s quite clear that they have seen the animal in a completely new and realistic way. This is education at its best.”

According to the EWT, sharks’ natural behaviour is altered when chum or bait is used to attract them to boats.

“One of the key conservation issues is the frequent conditioning of wild animals to divert them from their natural behaviour to engage directly with humans in response to stimulation,” says the EWT statement.

But a recent scientific paper on the impacts shark diving tourism has on sharks says there is still insufficient evidence to prove that baiting, or provisioning, has long-term effects on shark behaviour, and it needs to be noted that individual sharks react independently to stimuli.

A report on the effects baiting has on great whites done by South African scientists, including Alison Kock of Shark Spotters in Cape Town says: “Although ecotourism activity had an effect on the behaviour of some sharks, this was relatively minor, and the majority of sharks showed little interest in the food rewards on offer.”

Operators agree that more active monitoring by the Department of Environmental Affairs is needed to strengthen compliance. But they claim most operators work within a strict code of conduct, including the limit of 5kg of chum a day.

“Most operators abide by terms and conditions,” says Alison Towner, of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust in Gansbaai. “It’s looked down upon to lose bait or mishandle a white shark. Boats often lie close together and will report an unethical practice.”

Meanwhile as the debate continues in the Western Cape, the conservation of sharks is facing a far greater challenge in KwaZulu-Natal.

Nets and baited hooks, which line a large portion of KZN’s coastline, have been deployed to protect swimmers from sharks but are not protecting sharks from humans.

Each year these devices kill more than 500 sharks, of which, at last count, included 26 great whites.

Although alternatives such as electromagnetic deterrents have been considered, the KZN Sharks Board says they have yet to find a viable solution that suits their extensive coastline.

Perhaps the time has come to review the use of shark deterrents and the impacts they are having on great whites?

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