The truth about shark nets in South Africa

Posted on December 15, 2008
Written by: Shark Savers

Julie Andersen
Aliwal Shoal, South Africa

This month's field report comes from Aliwal Shoal, South Africa, where I am currently based.  And while I was here hoping to see and work with live sharks, these days I seem to be seeing more dead ones thanks to an archaic, culling technique called Shark Nets.

In this day and age, with all we know about sharks – including their dwindling numbers, their critical role in our ecosystem, their behavior, and the infinitesimal risk they pose to us – it is absolutely appalling that shark nets exist. Shark Nets are a crime against our oceans and our sharks, and they absolutely must be removed.

We spend our lives fighting to save sharks and their thoughtless and completely purposeless deaths are incredibly disheartening – especially in a country known for shark conservation. In the last month, I know of and have been witness in some cases to 10 such deaths – all tiger sharks – here in Aliwal Shoal, South Africa.  The last death was the most heart-wrenching, as I actually pulled the beautiful, dead baby tiger ashore for everyone to see. (More on this incident here.)

You see, Natal Sharks Board likes to hide the truth of the nets, keeping the deaths away from public eye ensuring that popular opinion supporting the nets won't sway when people witness  the outcome of the nets - dead dolphins, turtles, and sharks that hardly seem threatening.   In fact, they are so desperate to keep their nasty secret, Natal Sharks Board operates in the shadows, removing their kill early in the morning from the nets before anyone can see and hiding it on their boats far from prying eyes whisking the casualities away to headquarters. And not without reason – as I am quite certain if the casual observer began learning about all of the destruction in an already fragile environment, Natal Sharks Board would lose ground fast. As soon as beach goers happened upon the poor shark killed unnecessarily in the nets that we brought ashore, there was outrage, frustration and sadness.  And a common, immediate consensus: the nets must go.

Sadly, South Africa is a country of extremes. While they have led the world in the protection of white sharks and it is illegal to harm a white shark, they also allow white sharks to be killed every year under the guise that it is required for the safety of its water users.  In the last 30 years, over 1,100 white sharks have been killed. The same is true for Tiger sharks who are a significantly threatened species and are even protected in Aliwal. And while South Africa has one coast protected by barbaric shark nets and drumlines (whose sole purpose is to kill sharks), they have also pioneered a program on another coast that allows sharks and people to peacefully coexist – in the exact same water.

So what are shark nets?

Throughout the Eastern Coast of South Africa shark nets and drumlines are installed by Natal Sharks Board. Natal Sharks Board actually has a fishing license, and the purpose of these nets and drumlines are to kill sharks. Years ago, the nets were installed to appease beach users, who were panicked by a string of incidents on the beaches of Durban. Tourism was big money for the folks of KZN, and many lobbied to install nets to keep the sharks away from the beaches to keep the tourists happy. Surely the private organization installing the nets lobbied the hardest. And, ironically, most of these incidents were occurring where whaling stations were located as well (Hmm… dead whales near people swimming. Um, can we really blame the sharks?)

Until I saw them, like most people I think, I assumed shark nets were much like underwater mosquito nets, creating a harmless, and far-reaching barrier between the beach users and the sharks. This could not be further from the truth.

Shark nets are gill nets installed in tiered patterns – not fully extending to either the top or the bottom, and not fully enclosing the beach areas. While tiered, their installation often times seems quite random – and certainly does not enclose a beach. Over 40% of sharks are caught on the reverse side of the nets, meaning they have avoided them on the way in. Most are smaller sharks – as the larger ones have learned to avoid the nets. These smaller sharks don't pose any risk at all to bathers – as they are not large enough to consume large fish, let alone humans (as if we were even on their menus.) And, the sharks that are targeted are desperately threatened. While three shark species are targeted (Whites, Tigers and Bulls) by nets and drumlines, they only make up approximately 15% of the over 26,000 sharks caught in the last 30 years. Not incredibly effective, right?  A bit like taking grenades to game parks to kill lions.

You have got to hand it to the sharks and other creatures that avoid the nets… When I first swam next to the nets, it was only a few minutes before I managed to get completely entangled. Thankfully I had help nearby, but for a few desperate moments, I understood what it would be like to drown like a panicked shark, snarled in a mess of suffocating netting. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

For years, Natal Sharks Boards also finned the sharks they caught, turning a profit while keeping the beaches "safe". Makes you wonder what the motivations truly are… To date, no one I have spoken to has confirmed this no longer occurs. And the fact that you can go to their headquarters and buy other souvenirs of the carnage including teeth and jaws, and they themselves claim "additional sources of income" supplement their governmental grants, makes me convinced they sell everything they can.

More than anything else, Sharks Board sells fear. They have convinced the public that the nets are absolutely critical and dipping a toe into a beach not protected by nets will result in a brutal attack – thus earning their over 25 million rand yearly subsidy from the South African government.

Their headquarters are plush and gigantic – and include a macabre "museum" complete with old newspaper clippings of brutal shark attacks, turtle shells with tiger shark bites painted red to remind us of the blood and even a human femur bone with shark teeth marks on it. They have conveniently forgotten of the over 500 species of sharks, only a handful have ever been linked to incidents with humans. In fact, their PR person tried to convince me the dead blacktip in front of me was an unpredictable, dangerous jackal of the sea that I had unknowingly been rescued from. Odd, because I spend most days literally swarmed by them centimeters away. The worst thing these guys can do is bump into you when attempting to go after a tasty sardine morsel.

Believe it or not, you can still attend weekly dissections of sharks in a demented Disney-esque display– an attempt to show the public their work contributes to science and conservation.  Imagine an MC presiding over the autopsy as bleachers full of families watch, in one breath convincing the crowd the small blacktip was one of the most dangerous sharks in the sea (though never linked to a single attack) and in the other, making off color jokes about Xenophobia and Apartheid days, while squeezing the shark's liver into a bowl.

As if killing the sharks then making a circus of it weren't enough, these nets catch a significant amount of bycatch. Dolphins, turtles, and even baby whales have been caught and killed by these nets. 2,211 turtles, 8,448 rays, and 2,310 dolphins in the last 30 years to be exact.  This means that the nets have caught 100% more turtles and dolphins and 800% more rays than white sharks.

What's the solution to bycatch? Removing the nets? Hardly. In Australia it has become … Drumlines. Baited hooks complete with tasty morsels sure to draw the attention of the supposedly blood-thirsty and human hunting sharks, right? Sadly, the first part is true and the sharks are often drawn into the bait to meet their untimely and brutal end. 

Now Natal Sharks Board has installed drumlines similar to those installed in Australia and is pushing for more.  I suppose it makes sense that shark fisherman would suggest an alternative that leads to the death of more sharks but it is maddening nonetheless.

These drumlines are targeting even more sharks – particularly protected species, like the White Sharks. And, they are resulting in more shark deaths. Sadly, it seems to be the small, harmless Dusky and Scalloped Hammerhead sharks that take the bait most frequently. One may also wonder why you would attract sharks to the beaches filled with people with bait. Yes, it seems odd… Rather than let them be than attract the sharks INTO the beaches with people swimming nearby, no?

In all the madness, there is a solution. A solution called "Shark Spotters", an NGO that has been operating successfully in Capetown for several years.

Amazingly, in Capetown, THERE ARE NO NETS and NO DRUMLINES! Yes, there is a viable alternative to nets – without killing a single endangered animal. False Bay on the Western Cape of South Africa is the largest bay in Southern Africa. And, we all know, thanks to several Seal Island/Shark Week episodes (as well as thanks to scientists like Shark Angel Alison) that the white sharks are present in strong numbers. But not only does this bay have one of the highest concentrations of white sharks in the world, it also has the highest concentration of water users.

I am not by any means claiming to be an expert. Nor would I simply suggest the Capetown model would work in other places, with different types of sharks and topography. But, what I know is that there ARE viable alternatives to shark nets and drumlines and that we cannot keep unnecessarily destroying the very animals that keep our oceans – and us – healthy.

Many people, due to their irrational fears of sharks, think the world would be a better place without them. And with organizations like Natal Sharks Board heavily promoting this message – it is no wonder sharks are disappearing from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, one of the few places left in the world where sharks could thrive.

And fear aside, the economics surrounding the issue are clear. In addition to the critical role sharks play in our environment, sharks in South Africa contribute a significant amount of revenue to the South African economy and provide countless jobs.

Tiger Shark diving in Aliwal Shoal generated an estimated R18 million (USD $2.5 million) during 2007, while White Shark cage diving in Gansbaai generated approximately R289 million last year (USD $40 million). From a tourism perspective, each Raggedtooth Shark could be said to be worth R50,000 per annum (USD $7,000) for each of its 40 years or so of life. That equates to R2,250,000 (USD $310 000) over its lifetime. In the last thirty years, the nets have been responsible for the death of over 6400 of these sharks.  Using simple math (and not accounting for the loss of these sharks in terms of additional offspring), this equates to a loss of over R14 Billion.

The population of sharks around the world is plummeting, and their outlook is significantly threatened – particularly those targeted by the nets, including Tigers, Bulls and Whites. Like them or not, it is clear sharks play a crucial role on this planet – and to the economy of South Africa. So why is South Africa killing its – and the world's - sharks?

Learning how to live with sharks and share THEIR home is so critical to their long-term existence. There is no reason to kill sharks under the guise that it is for our own good – or our own safety.

Instead of fearing these creatures, we must develop a healthy respect and manage the infinitesimal risk getting into the same water with these sharks is – through education, awareness and programs like the Shark Spotters. We cannot afford to kill one more shark unnecessarily in Shark Nets – our long-term existence could depend on them.

In 1950, we knew little about sharks and the oceans. And, we had yet to spend the next 50 years ravaging our oceans, doing more damage to them than ever before.  So perhaps there was a time and a place for shark nets.  But we have absolutely NO EXCUSES NOW and the devastation cannot silently continue. The nets and drumlines most go. And I, and the rest of the Shark Savers here in South Africa, will not stop until they are removed.

More at Julie's blog: