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RESPONSE to the report of an endangered Humpback dolphin being entangled in the Newark Beach sharks nets (ZO 18 August) has reignited a KZN-wide debate on this controversial practice of shark culling.
It was reported the most recent incident was part of an ongoing repetition of dolphins, turtles and other marine species dying in the shark nets that are intended to snare only sharks.
But while a small number of readers fear shark attacks might happen if the nets are lifted at Richards Bay, the vast majority agree the nets are detrimental to the marine environment and in fact offer little real protection to ocean users.
Many called for a petition to engage with the municipality on alternative measures to protect bather-related tourism, and for a council decision to be made to have the shark nets removed or replaced by a more environment-friendly method.
The KZN Sharks Board has for some time being experimenting with drumlines – essentially floating baited hooks – and these have shown to be as effective as shark nets.
They may also be cheaper to maintain, as they do not require the gearing mechanism needed to lift the nets.
Although they still perpetuate the practice of killing sharks to ‘protect’ bathers, they are considered ‘the lesser of two evils’.
At present, the City of uMhlathuze spends around R2-million a year to the Sharks Board for the daily removal of catches and maintenance of the shark net equipment – a big spend given the extremely low risk of shark attacks.
Only 15 incidents – four fatal – have been reported in the past 65 years in Zululand.
Three of the fatalities were spearfishing.
KZN Sharks Board staff removed a Humpback dolphin from the nets at Newark Beach a week ago
Photo: Dave Savides
Blue Flag no-no
While many believe the presence of shark nets is a perquisite to obtain Blue Flag status for a beach, the opposite is in fact true.
A Blue Flag is an international award given to beaches that meet excellence in the areas of safety, amenities, cleanliness and environmental standards.
Even though a number of KZN municipalities are trying for full Blue Flag status in the hope of drawing more tourists, Blue Flag SA is itself reported as saying it is totally against their ethic to allow shark nets.
Increased attention to the debate following the ZO article was welcomed by marine biologist Shanan Atkins, who leads the Humpback dolphin research project in Richards Bay.
‘We cannot carry on killing sharks and dolphins to keep people safe.
‘If people are not prepared to take the risk like so many do all around the world, then we need to find a different way to protect bathers.
‘I believe the way to do this is to get all the stakeholders together, understand all the perspectives and work together to find a mutually acceptable solution so that all can swim safely – people, dolphins and sharks.’
This view was echoed by Coastwatch member and environmental scientist Judy Bell: ‘We need to get the conversations going and explore the alternatives in terms of impact on the ecosystems as well as beach safety.’
Responses were received from a number of environmentalists involved in marine sciences.
Their comments, arguments and opinions included the following:
• ‘Shark nets are archaic. If anything, the KZNSB promotes the fear of sharks along our coastline, which is extremely damaging for tourism – when the reality is that un-netted beaches are used here safely every single day.’
• ‘The producers of ‘Jaws’ really have a lot to answer for. There are terribly widespread misperceptions about sharks.’
• ‘Many sharks are caught inside the nets, while on their way out from beaches.’
• ‘Shark attacks are relatively infrequent, and few are fatal.’
• ‘By definition, shark nets are most definitely gill nets (a fishing net hung vertically so that fish get trapped in it by their gills).’
• ‘The nets catch anything big enough to get trapped in the mesh, including marlin, turtles, rays, sharks, dolphins, whale sharks and whales – including large number of calves.’
• ‘KZNSB maintains nets at 37 beaches in the province. Their actual mandate is to reduce shark numbers by fishing with gill nets and drumlines. In theory, ‘fewer sharks will result in fewer shark attacks’.’
• ‘An added danger is that shark nets come loose and drift in the ocean, posing danger to boats as well as marine species.
• ‘We should increase the amount of money paid to lifeguards and increase the number of lifeguards on our beaches for real bather protection. Our greatest risks as bathers come from rip currents, powerful surf, broken bottles, etc.’
• ‘Nets are not a physical barrier at all and sometimes bigger sharks are attracted from further out to investigate dying, struggling animals in the nets.’
• ‘Do we need shark nets? These were introduced in the 50’s and 60’s when Durban had a whaling station. The carcasses lured sharks in from the whole southern hemisphere. Shark attacks have dwindled considerably since the whaling stations closed.
Shark attacks recorded along the Zululand coast (www.sharkattackdata.com):
1955 Jan 15. Fatal. Brodie’s Coffin, St Lucia. Unidentified African male. Leg bitten while crossing bay.
1968 Mar 25. Richards Bay. Almon Mthiyane (35). Left thigh lacerated while pushing dinghy towards shoreline. Afternoon.
1971 Jan 1. Kosi Bay. Janie Pelser (fem 30). Sitting in shallows 8pm. Zambesi. Foot bitten.
1974 Jan 13. Cape Vidal. James Viljoen (42. Sitting in shallows. Raggedtooth 1m. Two minor foot lacerations.
1975 Sept 1. Richards Bay. Tony Meehan (21). Paddleskiing. Right foot and ankle lacerated.
1978 Dec 1. Fatal. Sodwana. Flip Steenkamp (23). Spearfishing 4.45pm. White shark. Legs bitten.
1983 Feb 20. Mtunzini. Peter Swart (16). Paddleskiing 12.30pm. Puncture wounds buttocks.
1984 July 1. Sodwana. Rory O’Connor. Spearfishing, fin hit. Raggedtooth.
1988 Feb 13. Mtunzini. Belinda van Schalkwyk (15). Lying on surfboard. Leg bitten, surgically amputated.
1989 Feb 15. Richards Bay. Nico Abel (26). Windsurfing. Foot bruised, minor cuts.
2002 Jan 1. Mtunzini. Michael van Niekerk (26). Surfskiing, sunset. Foot and calf bitten.
2003 Nov 27. Fatal. Sodwana. Seldon Jee (21). Spearfishing 8am. Hand only recovered. Tiger shark.
2009 Aug 11. Alkantstrand. Jeandre Nagel. Bodyboarding noon. White shark bit board. Incident disputed.
2010 July 4. Sodwana Two Mile Reef. Sarah Haiden (21). Snorkeling. Leg bitten.
2011 May 21. Fatal. Leven Point. Warren Smart (28). Spearfishing, noon. Zambesi. Thigh bitten.