A South African Winter of Shark Research: The Adventure Begins

 

by Madeline Jehensef

When you are wholly invested in something, especially something that you have been building anticipation around for a long time, do you ever find yourself in a place of blissful ignorance where there is no possibility of a negative aspect existing about your something? Well, that was the place I was drawn from when I heard that there was a small group of protesters picketing outside the Maharani Hotel, the venue for Sharks International 2014.

The Elangeni-Maharani Hotel in Durban, SA. Note the blue and white Sharks International banners outside

At first, I felt guilty. I am a protester too, when there is a worthy cause! Was there something I was missing? My guilt subsided fairly quickly however, as I realized that these protesters were a tad uninformed. In my experience, I have found that there are two main types of ineffective peaceful protesting. The first (which does not describe the Sharks International protesters, by the way) are what I like to call ‘Umbrellavists’. These protesters have many issues they would like to bring to the table, but they tend not to distinguish between them at any given protest, regardless of the target audience. The second form is under-informed protesting, and this was the kind occurring at the conference. The Sharks 2014 protesters were picketing against the bather protection nets that are along some beaches of the east coast of South Africa to reduce interactions between beach-goers and large sharks. These are set by the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Sharks Board, the organization that played host for the conference.

The use of bather protection nets (a combination of drumlines and gill nets that are about 300m long, 6m deep, with 51cm stretched mesh) is controversial in many countries that employ them because they are indiscriminate in their catch; as you can see in the table below, animals like sea turtles, dolphins, and seabirds are also caught in these nets.

Table retrieved from the KZN Sharks Board website: http://www.shark.co.za/CatchStatistics Note: ‘C’ stands for total catch, ‘R’ stands for released individuals

This bycatch is clearly not ideal however, it is important to note that the KZN Sharks Board is also a very active research body and uses the specimens it finds for daily dissections and studies. Along with conducting their own studies on shark biology and behaviour, they have research collaborations with many organizations locally and internationally, they provide samples to researchers around the world, and they participate in scientific conversation by attending and hosting events like Sharks International 2014. What’s more, they are actively pursuing non-lethal shark deterrents and have reduced the use of bather protection nets to half their original extent along the east coast. If this background information didn’t convince the protesters, they were free to peruse the conference program which was (and still is!) available to the public on the website.

I feel that the real issue here is that humans have an irrational fear of entering the sea and we should instead acknowledge and rejoice that there are still parts of our world that are ‘wilderness’! The good news is that this paradigm shift is underway with the facilitation of science and passionate people. Following the conference, I was lucky enough to spend two months with some of the most passionate scientists I’ve ever met, at the most beautiful little research station I’ve ever seen.

 

The South African Shark Conservancy in the heart Hermanus, Western Cape. Photo courtesy or Tamzyn Zweig

The South African Shark Conservancy (SASC) is literally surrounded by oceanic inspiration while being steps away from the little bustling tourist town of Hermanus, what a glorious place to work! On my first morning, as I was led down the windy stone stairs and along a narrow outcrop of rock with the waves lapping the smooth fluid stone just feet below me, I started to think that we must be on a scenic detour before heading to SASC because there was no way a building could fit here. The next two months were a dream as I worked on some of the 13 on-going research projects, interacted with the public, and spent time with the gorgeous creatures of this biodiverse coastline that was so unfamiliar to me. Southern Africa is home to 34 endemic sharks, which means these species are found nowhere else in the world…to put that into perspective, Canada is only home to 28 species of shark in total! In my next entry I’ll tell you a bit more about these South African sharks, including the stripey pyjama catshark shown below, and what SASC is doing to protect them.

 

South African endemic pyjama catshark (Poroderma africanum) spotted on a dive off the Simon’s Town coast

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