Last week former Zag publisher and green surfing activists John McCarthy wrote an open letter regarding KZN’s shark nets. The post was well received amongst the community and sparked debate around some of the stats made available on the Sharks Board website.
The theme from Jaws echoes in the minds of most surfers when the word shark is mentioned in the lineup, yet for the most part, the relationship between the two ocean users has become increasingly more forgiving.
The purpose of this post is to encourage discussion by representing both sides of the net. Whether you are for or against shark nets, it is important to understand what comes with and without them. We republish John’s open letter below and then hit up the Sharks Board for their perspective below that. Dig in:
**This is an open letter to my fellow residents of Durban as well as to the many visitors who enjoy swimming and surfing along our beachfront** – John McCarthy
As some of you may have heard the KZN Sharks board is currently on strike, which means that the normal volume of shark nets along our beaches are either not in place or not being serviced. As a result of this many of the beaches are closed to bathing. The assumption here is that shark nets protect bathers from sharks as a kind of barrier, so remove the barrier and you are suddenly at risk. Right?
No, wrong. Shark nets do not work like that. Shark nets are staggered with spaces between them, which allows marine wildlife to move inside those barriers. The nets are designed to entrap animals that are either unaware of the net or become confused by the partial barrier. Effectively these are gill nets (the second most indiscriminate and destructive form of fishing next dynamiting).
So how do they work? Well to put it bluntly over a period of time they simply fish out the resident and transient shark populations. The KZN Sharks board has been operating for over 50 years. I attach the yearly averages (taken off the KZN Sharksboard site for 2013-17) of both sharks catches as well as other species. At a thumbsuck, if we extrapolate those numbers over 50 years we can determine that the nets have caught around 25000 sharks and 15000 other marine animals (whales, dolphins, turtles, rays etc). That is a sobering statistic.
The next time you watch ‘The Cove’ (a film about the dolphin slaughter in Taiji) and you are filled with righteous indignation at the cruelty of the Japanese, maybe pause a moment and reflect on our own private little ‘Taiji’ massacre that we have going on along right in front of our noses here in KZN, except ours is conveniently packaged as ‘tourism and bather protection’ and it’s paid for with tax payer’s money. That’s right, you and I are funding this little party.
Shark populations can’t just regenerate overnight in the space of one or two sharks board strikes. You are no less safe going in the water tomorrow without a net than you were yesterday with a net.
Now here’s an interesting thought. What if sharks are not really interested in us as prey? Daily we swim with all species of sharks at Aliwal Shoal, Sodwana and in Mozambique. They show nothing more than a passing interest in us. At Muizenberg in Cape Town, where there are no nets (False Bay apparently has the highest resident Great White population in the world) thousands of people enter the water every week. If sharks really were interested in humans there would be no surfers left! Instead, surfing is booming, tourism is flourishing and for the most part humans and sharks are just going about their business separately.
Now here’s an awkward thought. What if the nets along our beaches have just been one huge mistake? An environmental crime that has seen close to 50 000 marine animals lose their lives unnecessarily perpetuated in the misinformed guise of bather protection… yes it’s an awkward thought, isn’t it?
Of course, the KZN Sharksboard can’t admit that they are wrong and no the irony of their current strike doesn’t escape me. Equally, they can’t prove definitively that sharks seek out humans as prey. What we have here folks is just good old fashioned momentum. There are jobs at stake and no doubt lucrative contracts up for grabs, so rather than address an inconvenient possible truth it’s easier to just keep on doing what they do, they way they have for 50 years.
Change starts with you and me and with building awareness about how these nets actually work and what they really do. As taxpayers we do have recourse, we need to lobby our ward councillors, we have a right to ask questions and demand answers. As parents, we need to educate our children and prevent them from being filled with fear at an early age the way the Sharks Board did to us. As hosts, we need to apologise to our guests about the ‘Taiji’ that is happening on our doorstep.
Maybe its time that we just don’t put the nets back…
I think we can all agree, the message put across in John’s post is rather moving and clear. However, it wouldnt be fair for us to not represent both sides of the net. We reached out to the Sharks Board for a comment and got one from Head Researcher, Geremy Cliff :
Some points to consider:
Shark attacks have had a hugely negative impact on beach tourism, Black December of 1957 being the most striking example. Apart from the two people killed and the young girl who survived with major injuries, the impact was hugely financial with holidaymakers leaving the KZN south coast and returning inland.
The Sharks Board has never claimed that the nets are a barrier. In fact, we have replaced many of our nets with drumlines, a more selective form of fishing for sharks, which offer no barrier effect.
We are not totally insensitive to growing environmental concerns and remove the nets during the sardine run when large numbers of sharks and dolphins follow the shoals into southern KZN inshore waters. Other examples are the replacement of nets with drumlines, a general reduction in the number of nets and the release of any sharks found alive.
Shark attacks, regardless of where they occur, are always sensationalized by the media which doesn’t help overcome the largely irrational fear people have for these animals. Most attacks historically involved swimmers, but for the last 40 years, the victims have been mainly surfers and some spear fisherman. Scuba divers are really bitten, so obviously they will have very different perceptions about sharks.
If we could use shark spotters instead of shark fishing gear (nets and drums) we would. Gill nets are used in many other conventional fisheries, including those for sharks, around the world. Our catches pale in comparison to the global shark catch, including the bycatch in tuna fisheries. The Sharks Board is a parastatal organisation which is legally mandated to do what we do (KZN Sharks Board Act of 2008), it is not a profit-generating organisation.
Opposition to our operations should be directed at the politicians whose predecessors decided in the 1950s that Durban and the adjacent beaches required protection to safeguard beach tourism. This was long before the Sharks Board was formed in 1964.
**If you’re opposed to shark nets, or perhaps have questions then please do come down and join the peaceful protest happening on Sunday, November the 4th outside the KZN Sharks Board Hub – 1 Herrwood Dr 4320 Umhlanga Rocks, KwaZulu-Natal**