Our Burning Planet


No need to panic, say experts after fatal Plett shark bite incident

No need to panic, say experts after fatal Plett shark bite incident
A documentary team observes a great white shark along the Robberg Peninsula in Plettenberg Bay. (Photo: Ewald Stander)

Sunday’s fatal Plettenberg Bay shark incident has sparked public interest, being the second fatality in months at the popular holiday destination. But this is not 1975, when the movie ‘Jaws’ was released — sharks do not hunt humans. In fact, they are a species in decline and the measures we use to protect ourselves might be contributing to that.

The fatal shark bite incident at Plettenburg Bay on Sunday made headlines this week, raising speculation whether such incidents were on the increase, especially along that part of the coast.

The local Bitou Municipality and the National Sea Rescue Institute said in a statement released after the incident that claimed the life of 39-year-old Kimon Bisogno, that two fatalities within a year is “very unusual when compared with previous years”. The previous fatal shark bite in Plettenberg Bay was in 2011.

The annual average of unprovoked fatalities from shark incidents is only five worldwide, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File.

“When these things happen, people try to find a specific reason to point fingers at,” said Dr Enrico Gennari, marine ecologist specialising in white sharks, from the Oceans Research Institute in Mossel Bay.

“I think there is less chance of getting bitten by a white shark now than 10 years ago,” he said, explaining that white sharks numbers in SA are likely to be declining.

Sarah Waries, CEO of Shark Spotters — the primary shark safety outfit used in Cape Town — said it’s important to understand that shark incidents are very rare. 

“And while they are very rare, they are incredibly high-impact events. 

“So there’s always this massive uproar and very emotional, traumatic response — which is completely understandable — but at the end of the day, they do happen very rarely. And we do need to find ways in which we can coexist with sharks.”

KwaZulu-Natal is renowned for its often lethal, but effective shark nets. Dr Matt Dicken, KZN Sharks Board acting head of research and monitoring, told Daily Maverick “we are the only province with no fatal shark attacks. This safety factor supports a multibillion-rand tourism sector and hundreds of thousands of jobs”. 

shark robberg

A large great white shark prowls the coastline along the Robberg Peninsula in Plettenberg Bay near the local seal colony. (Photo: Ewald Stander)

However, shark nets often kill sharks — and other marine life — and there are alternative measures that protect bathers without harming sharks, which are important to our ecosystem.

“They [white sharks] maintain balance… they’re important for ecosystem function and resilience,” said Waries.

“And you know, just because we occasionally have shark incidents — which are very tragic and really traumatic — it doesn’t mean that we should be getting rid of sharks… we do still need them in our oceans.”

Humans are the real Jaws of the ocean

Shark incidents can often lead to people demonising these animals, seeing them as they are portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s thriller, Jaws — but despite sharks being natural predators, humans are far more dangerous.

“These animals do not search for people. Because otherwise, for example, in Mossel Bay, where I work, we would have a bite almost every single month,” said Dr Gennari, explaining that in Mossel Bay — which has a relatively high concentration of white sharks (in two hours you can count up to 30 sharks) — white sharks move away from Seal Island, which is 800m from the popular Diaz Beach where many people swim in summer.

“So if they were really interested in us, they would stay around Diaz Beach, because there are a lot of people in the water,” said Gennari. “But they don’t care.

“We’re not part of their diet… they’re not searching for us.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, sharks involved in incidents with humans are often hunting for similar-sized prey such as seals or dolphins. The majority of shark species eat fish or invertebrates such as squid or clams.

In an attempt to dispel the myths, the CEO of Marine Dynamics Academy and founder of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Wilfred Chivell, is working on a campaign to educate people about sharks.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Chivell says humans are the real “Jaws” of the ocean.

“Penguins have been around for 60 million years, while sharks have been around for 450 million years — and it took us, as humans, 60 years to almost completely destroy these species,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Creecy’s plan to save plummeting African penguin population is crucial — but it’s not urgent enough

Chivell’s life mission is to focus on the bigger picture, to save the oceans, to stop the damage humans are doing. 

“I have been at the forefront, operating as an ecotourism shark cage diving company, doing comprehensive research, and providing 17 years of shark data,” he said.

Chivell said since records started for South Africa in 1905, there have been 248 unprovoked bites. Most of the incidents (103) have occurred in the Eastern Cape, 90 in KZN and 55 in the Western Cape.

Sharks in decline

Gennari estimates that white sharks in SA have been slowly declining over the past 20 years, and have declined even more after orcas started killing white sharks in False Bay in 2017. 

Gennari has released a study that indicated the annual numbers of shark removals from nets are too high and have pushed the white shark toward a slow decline — and then, when orcas started killing more white sharks, “it was almost like a tipping point”.

The study indicates that it is highly likely that the shark population in SA is going down, which Gennari said in a way is ironic “as South Africa was the first country in the world to protect the white shark and might be the first country in the world to lose the species”.

While they don’t have population data at this stage — researchers in this field are awaiting a population assessment of white sharks in SA, due to come out next year —  white sharks have definitely not been increasing.

White sharks have disappeared from the two main aggregation sites (Cape Town and Gansbaai) and populations in Mossel Bay are slowly decreasing.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Where have all the Great White Sharks gone?

Chivell said overfishing is the biggest contributor to the decline in shark numbers.

“Long-line fishing trawlers are a massive problem, in the deeper oceans as well as in the shallows. Our Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Environment is not doing enough to protect our marine resources, even though so many national and international marine scientists are cautioning them to do so.” 

Orcas have been present in False Bay from 2010, but Gennari said they didn’t have an impact on white sharks until 2017 when two specific orcas appeared.

“Interestingly, those orcas seem to have taught other orcas how to use the white sharks,” said Gennari.

Gennari’s recent study, “How continuing mortality affects recovery potential for prohibited sharks: The case of white sharks in South Africa”, used simulation modelling to assess potential population responses of white sharks to different levels of mortality.

“Despite protection in South Africa since 1991, sightings of great white sharks have declined at several aggregation sites off South Africa,” said Gennari.

“All simulations indicated that annual mortality in the tens of sharks would be sufficient to limit population growth. Moreover, known levels of average white shark mortality in the KZNSB [KZN Sharks Board] bather protection programme have typically remained higher than these thresholds. 

“An average of more than 30 white shark are killed every year by the KZNSB programme for the last 40-plus years.

“These results suggest that even known levels of white shark mortality occurring, which likely underestimate total removals within their range, may be sufficient to drive abundance decline and new mitigation measures may be required to ensure population recovery.”

However, the KZN Sharks Board’s Dicken told Daily Maverick, “the data used by Enrico [Gennari] is incorrect… we don’t kill that many white sharks — as such, the paper’s conclusions are wrong.

“There is indeed little evidence to suggest white sharks are declining in SA, but rather a redistribution to other areas.”

But Dicken was a co-author of a paper which reported that on average, 32 white sharks a year were caught in nets, of which few were released, with an average of 28 white sharks killed a year.

Gennari emphasised that this might not be the only reason for the decline, but right now it’s the only reason that we know of that we, as humans, can do something about.

Shark nets kill sharks

The KZN Sharks Board is funded by municipal meshing fees and the province, and uses shark nets and drumlines to protect bathers.

Gennari explained that the only difference between nets and drumlines is that drumlines are designed to not catch species like turtles, dolphins or whales. 

“But both the shark nets and the drumlines are designed to kill sharks… they are not a barrier,” said Gennari. 

Sharks get entangled in the large mesh, and the KZN Sharks Board tries to release them, but if they don’t get there quickly enough they die of exhaustion or drown.

Dicken said “the KZNSB has looked at all alternatives to nets and drums and nothing is suitable for our coastline”. The board is “developing a non-lethal solution called the shark repellent cable which could be tested at Plett”.

Alternative solutions 

Waries from Shark Spotters said “sharks are really important for the ecosystem and so it’s important that we think clearly and rationally around shark risk and don’t put in measures that could harm people, that could harm sharks or are not effective.” 

Shark spotting — either using people or technology like drones — and non-harmful nets like exclusion nets, are solutions that protect bathers without harming marine life. 

“The shark spotting programme is a perfect example of a sustainable solution,” said Gennari, explaining that it’s sustainable ecologically — it doesn’t kill any sharks — but also employs people. 

Waries said that since the Shark Spotters programme began in 2004 in False Bay, they have recorded more than 2,500 shark sightings, and there have only been four incidents — three were at beaches that were not monitored and one was where a swimmer ignored warnings and went in the water.

Another safety measure is using exclusion nets as is the case off Fish Hoek. Unlike the shark nets they use in KZN, exclusion nets have much smaller mesh, so no large shark can become entangled.

“The exclusion barrier is also designed specifically to have no environmental impact,” said Waries, “and it provides a safe swimming space for people while still allowing sharks to carry on with their business.”

Waries said the most important thing we can do to prevent shark bites is education. “People must be aware of sharks, they must be aware of what they can do to reduce their risk of encountering a shark, they must look out for signs that are a potential increased risk of shark activity.”

Gennari said there is no specific time when sharks are closer to the shore, but around sunrise and sunset there is less visibility in the water, so there’s a higher chance of misidentification.

Following the death of  Cape Town restaurateur Kimon Bisogno on 25 September, the Bitou Municipality said that, along with stakeholders in Plettenberg Bay, including Plett Tourism, NSRI Plett, the Institute of Great White Research and conservation specialists, they have been in conversations since May to put together a formalised Plett Shark Action Plan.

“In addition to the 12 shark bite kits sponsored by NSRI that are already strategically placed along the main beaches in Plett, the group is also engaged on several WhatsApp platforms that keep stakeholders informed of shark activity in the area,” the statement read. 

The municipality has a three-stage plan that includes “‘Shark Smart signage, collateral and public awareness”. They said private funding had been donated and the signs will be erected as soon as possible.

The council said they approved research for deterrent options on 31 May and it will take 18 months to determine if any are viable — this includes shark spotting. DM/OBP

Additional reporting by Tembile Sgqolana.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The reason why shark attacks generate such hysteria is because we see ourselves as the apex predator, and for us to be taken for food is not something we can easily handle. That is, after all, what we do.

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    “Our Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Environment is not doing enough to protect our marine resources,” How could it – it’s a government department run by the same idiots who gave you Eskom, Prasa, the worst ports in the world and armed forces that couldn’t beat Lesotho!

  • Tony Purchase says:

    If only mankind would realise we are co-creatures on this planet, and we are visitors to the sharks’ habitat, the ocean.

  • Peter Holmes says:

    KZN Sharks Board spokesperson “we are the only province with no fatal shark attacks”. I doubt that Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng. North West and the Free State have experienced many shark attacks recently.

  • Glen Witte says:

    Thank you Julia Evans for putting it so succintly into it’s true and sensible perspective.

  • Sam Shu says:

    Except the daily maverick added to the hysteria with their previous, insensitive to the ecosystem, article in the shark attacks. shame on you too

  • Dave Reynell says:

    “There is indeed little evidence to suggest white sharks are declining in SA, but rather a redistribution to other areas.” Quote KZN Sharks Board.
    Dr. Gennari has been studying the movement of white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) for many years. I know who I would believe.

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