Sharks are in desperate need of a Public Relations department. They’ve been unfairly demonised since ocean explorers first got a taste of the salty sea, and thrust into popular culture as man-eaters by Steven Spielberg’s 1975 cult film – “JAWS.” It’s unfair because the perception created by the media is not accurate.
Even Peter Benchley, the novelist who wrote “JAWS” made an official apology to The Great White Shark for the damage he caused when he created the fictional fish. He did not know it then, but his tactlessness created an irrational fear and helped solidify their fate as being hated, feared and systematically wiped-out wherever they were found.
What we knew then and what we know now is very different. It has taken over 40 years of research and hard work by the scientific community and environmentalists to start to turn the tide of the unhealthy perception people have of sharks. They might be a lot less feared as the science has helped us understand that they are not out to get us – and there are only actually four out of the 370 species of sharks that are necessarily dangerous to humans. Being a keystone species, which clean our oceans, entirely exterminating sharks would cause irreversible damage to our finely balanced eco-systems and exasperate our already changing relationship with the natural world.
Shark Attack Goes Viral
In 2015, we already saw a string of both fatal and non-fatal attacks by sharks on humans along the eastern coastlines of America, the west coast of Australia and along our coastline. Australia has been victim to 14-recorded attacks already, while in the US, beachgoers in North Carolina have been subjected to eight since the start of June.
The reason for the increase in attacks is up for debate, but the consensus amongst leading shark experts is that our population growth and the resulting increase in people in the water has naturally resulted in more encounters with sharks. Simply put – more people in the oceans equates to a higher chance of meeting one of them. An attack that has potentially damaged the reputation of sharks comparable to the movie “JAWS” was the recent attack on world surfing champion Mick Fanning. Caught on live television, and the resultant YouTube video, which has been viewed by over 20 million people around the world. Luckily for The World Surf League, Jeffery’s Bay and the two surfers in the water, the Yamaha water safety boat and WaveRunner’s were on hand and were able to get to Mick within 17 seconds of the initial attack. The contest was suspended, and luckily the surfers were left unharmed, albeit shaken and disturbed.
Finding the Balance
The ocean still mystifies us to this day. 95% of it at depths we cannot see or explore. Much remains to be learned about the ways it drives weather patterns, regulates temperatures, and supports all living organisms. The oceans cover 70% of our planet’s surface yet account for only 10% of its protected area. This makes it tough to ascertain things like shark population sizes. Mike Anderson-Reade is the operations manager of the KZN Sharks Board, and he explained that unlike animals on earth, like wild animals in Africa, flying overhead and counting them is easy to do – but with sharks in our oceans, it’s not easy to have final numbers. Shark populations might be in rapid decline, however. According to a recent study http://bit.ly/1fp7c0A done by Boris Worm, a professor and marine ecologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, “Half of all species of open-ocean sharks face a risk of extinction.” Sharks have an extended gestation period, which makes it incredibly difficult for the populations to recover once they are in decline. The biggest contributor to their demise is long-line commercial fishing, an appetite for shark fin soup in the east, shark culls, which take place regularly around the world and the slow destruction of natural habitats caused by human population growth.
Getting Schooled On Sharks
An organisation that has contributed positively towards genuinely educating people about sharks is the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board. The Sharks Board has been around since the early 60’s, they’ve filed tonnes of research about the fish ever since, and helped the world learn more about them. They’re a unique organisation, unlike any in the world, their history dates back to when Durban and the world as a whole was an entirely different place. The South African Whaling Company opened its doors in 1907 on the Bluff side of the harbour. In their 70 years in operation, they managed to deplete the local population of whales. Harpooning them with 80kg metal spears fashioned with explosives. The whales would then be dragged around the harbour entrance, sent to the processing plant, and sold overseas into many different markets. The carcases’ km long trails of blood attracted hungry sharks as they followed them up the coastline. Between 1943 and 1951, Durban experienced 21 attacks, seven of which were fatal, the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board, now called the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board (KZNSB) was formed, tasked with protecting bathers. Then in 1957, dubbed ‘Black December,’ shark’s claimed the lives of five people in just 107 days in violent attacks down the South Coast. It was a seemingly dark time for the province until the nets proved useful.
Tourists and sharks don’t mix.
The nets were introduced to actively fish for the three most dangerous sharks that hunt in our waters (Tiger Sharks, Bull Sharks and The Great White). They run along strategic stretches of coastline from Richards Bay in the north to Port Edward in the south where over 3.7 million visitors flock during the summer. They are in no way fail-safe. Instead, they offer peace of mind for bathers and a fighting chance for non-targeted shark species and other marine life that sometimes gets caught up in the crossfire. Animals that are captured in the nets and found alive are always given a fighting chance. There have been numerous reports of sharks being dragged next to the boat heading out to sea until they are robust enough to swim again. In its current form, the Sharks Board do over 3,500 launches a year, a true testament to the reliability of the Yamaha Outboards they use. The Nets have done their job well, with only two recorded incidents along stretches of beach that were once feared by the public. The Sharks Board are always evolving and adapting the techniques and equipment needed to secure the safety of bathers in our waters. Since the peak of 45km of Nets in 1992, they have been cut back to the current 23km. This was done to lessen the impact on the environment even further. Drum Lines – (single hooks baited with Red Mullet) have also been implemented down the south coast with colossal success, reducing off species catches by up to 70%. The Sharks Board is also pioneering new ways to protect bathers and lessen the loss of life of marine animals. The shark repellant cable, which emits a low frequency pulsed electronic signal, which has been shown to repel white sharks without causing damage is currently being tested in Cape Town. The technology is continually developing, and when it’s ready, it will undoubtedly change the way the world handles this issue.
One of Durban’s best-kept secrets is a full day out at the headquarters of the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board in Umhlanga Rocks. It’s an enthralling experience for young and old. The kids will love the edutainment provided by the fun and knowledgeable staff. You’ll get to witness a live dissection and learn more about the species. There’s a cinema too that plays interesting documentaries on sharks and you can browse through the shark museum, which has an excellent record of the history of Durban.