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How learning to co-exist with sharks will save us, them – and the ocean

How learning to co-exist with sharks will save us, them – and the ocean
From left: Plett Shark Spotters field manager Nicky Namntu. (Photo: Julia Evans) | A great white shark. (Photo: Wikimedia) | Plett Shark Action Group and the Bitou Local Municipality brought the Cape Town-based Shark Spotters programme to Plett in October 2022 after two fatal shark incidents within three months. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Despite the extreme fear shark incidents can engender in beachgoers and the cascading social, environmental and economic impacts of these incidents, there is a very low chance you will encounter a shark while swimming. In fact, they are the creatures that need protection.

At a shark awareness programme at the Iziko Museums of South Africa on 14 July, a team of shark experts spoke to Daily Maverick about the threats and vulnerabilities sharks and rays face in today’s world, and how human and climate change can amplify these threats.

Sarah Waries, CEO of shark safety programme Shark Spotters, said: “The human impact on sharks and their vulnerabilities is quite big and very varied. It ranges from plastic pollution to habitat degradation, overfishing, consumption of sharks or sharks as bycatch.”

Alexandra Azevedo, a marine scientist from UCT who specialises in cartilaginous fish species (sharks, rays, skates and chimaeras), explains that sharks are particularly vulnerable to the fishing industry because of their life history characteristics. 

“They’re slow growing and can take a long time to reach their sexual maturity [when they are able to reproduce]. To put it into perspective, great white sharks can take at least 10 years to reach sexual maturity. Another factor is that many sharks and rays are large-bodied at birth, making them vulnerable to being caught in fishing nets at all stages of their life, notably before they get a chance to reproduce. Lastly, they have low fecundity, which means that they produce small numbers of pups … compared to other, more productive, species of fish like tuna, which can have up to 1,000s at a time,” she said. 

shark spotters

Shark Spotter Lafihamo Botha on a look-out deck at Robberg Nature Reserve watching over Wreck Beach in Plettenberg Bay. Shark Spotters use polarised sunglasses to help detect sharks below the water. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Certain fishing methods also negatively affect sharks, particularly with non-specific targeting, such as longline fishing and trawling – there can be up to 10% of bycatch of other species, often including sharks, rays or skates.

Azevedo said there are legal shark fisheries in South Africa that often sell shark to overseas restaurants, particularly in Australia, labelled as “flake and chips”.

We can hope that with the renewal of South Africa’s National Plan for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (NPOA-Sharks) that they will enforce more protection on vulnerable species of shark because a recent study from the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] estimates that 37% of all sharks, rays, and skates are at risk for extinction,” she said. 

Sarah Viana, a postdoctoral fellow from UCT and a shark research associate from the Marine Biology department at Iziko Museums of South Africa, said the shark awareness programme was planned to inform the biological role that sharks play in the marine environment and the impacts that humans have been putting on their populations.

The importance of natural history museums, like Iziko, is also emphasized when it comes to shark biodiversity knowledge and conservation. With sharks and rays, Viana said there are studies that show the main driver towards extinction is over-exploitation. Other threats include habitat degradation and loss and pollution in the coastal and deep-sea habitats.

Is climate change having an impact on sharks?

Azevedo said that the climate crisis is affecting every part of our world, particularly our oceans. The climate crisis is driven by increased carbon dioxide (CO₂) in our atmosphere, and the ocean is the greatest “carbon sink” capturing excess CO₂.

Because of the increased absorption, our oceans are rising in pH and becoming more acidic and warmer, and partly owing to the melting of the polar ice caps, there is a shift in the ocean’s natural currents. 

“We don’t fully understand the implications of the effects of climate change on our shark populations yet, but there are many studies looking at the possible effects which could lead to changes in shark species distribution worldwide. Since sharks are apex predators, this affects the entire marine food chain.

“We’re going to have to figure out what sharks’ current patterns are and work on protecting those spaces to avoid losing any more of our sharks, which have declined by 90% in the last 70 years,” she said.

Viana agreed that climate change was a driver towards extinction risks for sharks and rays.

shark spotters

A Shark Spotter sitting on the roof of Beacon Island Resort that provides a vantage point for central beach and Robberg Beach, Plettenberg Bay. (Photo: Julia Evans)

“Even though climate change research related to sharks and rays is rare and still tentative, there are indications that climate change might affect some populations. This is especially true if you also look in the context of the (changing) climate for coastal species; sea level rise, for example, can affect the coastal species because they probably would not be able to support variation depth so they cannot physiologically survive today. [Changing] temperature could also be an effect driving extinction, but this is still an estimation and there is not much evidence to prove this,” she said.

Viana said that education about this vulnerable species was made possible because of previous studies done by scientists of Iziko’s marine biology department.

“For example, the whale shark species was described by the first director, Sir Andrew Smith, at Iziko… There is a valuable cultural identity and scientific heritage behind this museum, and people need to be proud of these types of institutions because everything we know today about nature came from a natural history museum.”

Low frequency, high impact

With sharks facing multiple threats and marine researchers concerned that many species are declining, the likelihood of you ever encountering a shark is actually very low.

Last year there were only five fatal shark incidents in the world (from the 57 total unprovoked incidents) – two of which occurred at popular SA holiday destination Plettenberg Bay, making national headlines.

At the time Dr Enrico Gennari, a marine ecologist specialising in white sharks, from the Oceans Research Institute in Mossel Bay, told Daily Maverick: “I think there is less chance of getting bitten by a white shark now than 10 years ago.” He said that white shark numbers in SA are likely to be declining.

But, as Toby Rogers, Shark Spotters research manager, explained at the second Plett Marine Science Symposium hosted earlier this month, even one shark incident can have cascading effects, from social (community fear and trauma) and environmental (lethal shark nets) to economic (affecting tourism). 

This is exactly what happened after two fatal shark incidents occurred within three months at Plett.

shark spotters

Shark Spotters record every animal they see (not just sharks), including the size and number of individuals, their movement and behaviour, as well as the environmental conditions they were seen under. In Cape Town, this data has revealed what conditions shark incidents are more likely to occur. (Photo: Julia Evans)

After the incidents, the Plett Shark Action Group was established and with the Bitou Local Municipality partnered with Cape Town-based Shark Spotters to find a sustainable way to protect bathers.

“Plett could’ve followed the route of lethal control, like in KZN, but thankfully the powers that be realised that there was an importance of taking a sustainable and conservation-based approach to managing shark risk,” Rogers said.

A recent study by Gennari found that “an average of more than 30 white sharks are killed every year by the KZNSB [KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board] programme, for the last 40-plus years”.

shark spotters

Shark safety signage on central beach, implemented by the Plett Shark Action Group after the first fatal shark incident occurred last year. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Unlike the lethal shark nets used in KwaZulu-Natal, shark spotting does not harm sharks – the visual surveillance system has been recognised internationally as a pioneer in sustainable shark safety, Rogers said.

Why we need sharks 

Waries said that by protecting sharks we are actually protecting ourselves; healthy communities need healthy oceans. 

“We need sharks to maintain the balance and healthy dynamic of the ecosystem. If we want to have lots of fish and fish sustainably, then we need to have these apex predators,” she said.

Shark Spotters are a great example of including local communities in the economic benefits of conservation. You not only boost conservation but also provide long-term sustainable skills development for communities previously excluded from conservation.

In Cape Town, 95% of Shark Spotters’ 56 employees are from previously disadvantaged communities, 

“It doesn’t only keep people safe and help conserve sharks, it also helps people in Plett, especially us from the under-resourced communities,” said Nicky Namntu, who was hired last year as the field manager for Plett Shark Spotters. 

sharks

Nicky Namntu, the first field manager of Plett Shark Spotters. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Shark Spotters arrived in Plett last October and was tasked with training 14 Plett locals to be spotters by the December holiday season. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Shark Spotters safety outfit comes to Plettenberg Bay, giving conservation a vital boost

The intensive training included how to spot and identify marine animals; how different environmental factors can affect the spotting ability; risk assessment for sightings; and classroom-based training focusing on basic marine biology.

Namntu and her team come from Kwanokuthula, New Horizon, Pine Trees, Kranshoek, Wittedrift and Qolweni. Eleven team members had never set foot in the water before this programme out of fear of sharks and drowning. 

Namntu said that while she can swim and has always had a love for the ocean and nature, having grown up near Keurbooms, she didn’t understand sharks and her fear of sharks held her back from working as a lifeguard after she qualified as one in high school.

“I always had a passion for nature … but I was not privileged enough to get to be part of that world [of conservation] or didn’t know what it meant to get to be that part of the world.”

Namntu said she left her job as a sales associate at Foschini in 2017 as she felt as if she didn’t belong in the world of retail, and got her foot in the environmental door with a two-year learnership at the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa as a blue flag beach steward where her passion grew.

shark spotters

Each one of Plett’s five shark spotting spots has a name — Sierra Whiskey stands for Site Wreck, as it watches over Wreck Beach. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Namntu said since landing the manager role at Shark Spotters, she’s had the chance to “develop a real interest and understanding of these misunderstood apex predators, and want to share our knowledge to help protect sharks and people in the area”.

Lafihamo Botha, a Plett local who used to work in hospitality and is now a Shark Spotter based in the Robberg Nature Reserve overlooking Wreck Beach, said the job had changed his view on sharks and conservation.

“That’s what I would call a privilege, to be able to have that knowledge and sort of pass it on and to live a certain way.”

Botha said what he loves the most about his job is that “some people go away to find peace, we come to work to find peace”. Being based along a footpath at Robberg Nature Reserve, he gets to interact with lots of people who come up to him. He teaches them about the importance of shark conservation.

Namntu joked that the spotters used to get the weirdest questions from their community. “They’d say, ‘Joh, are you a shark spotter? So you guys go in the water and stop the shark?’ ”

She explained that in the beginning, people were very negative and afraid to go to the beach after the shark incidents last year, including her sister and her children.

“But as we started to educate the community, they started to come in numbers; we started to see the beaches getting fuller.” DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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