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11 May 2021

Another sad dolphin death in Richards Bay shark nets

Dave Savides (Zuuand Observer) Picture: Dave Savides. File photo of a dead dolphin being lifted from the nets by the KZN Sharks Board.

Already a highly endangered species, another humpback dolphin died after being snared in the shark nets off Alkantstrand last Wednesday.

Knowledge of the loss of the 184 cm long female was distressing both to the members of the Richards Bay Humpback Dolphin Research Project as well as the KZN Sharks Board (SB), who manage the nets and drum lines on behalf of the uMhlathuze Municipality.

The incident has revived the controversy over the use of shark nets – an expensive city budget item at around R2-million per year – in an attempt to ensure bather safety. In the past 65 years, there have only been 15 recorded shark attacks along the whole of the Zululand coast, four of which were fatal – three of these involving spear fishermen.

‘I can confirm the dolphin was sadly entrapped and I am aware this will have negative reaction in many quarters,’ SB Acting Head of Research, Dr Matt Dicken told the ZO on Friday.

‘As conservationists ourselves, we walk this tightrope of bather protection on one side and bycatch deaths on the other. Any shark attack would trigger huge emotional response that will negatively impact the local economy enormously if people then refused to visit the city because they were afraid to swim.

‘Believe me, if there was any other viable, proven option to the use of nets we would be the first to adopt it but thus far there is no technology or system available to better avert the possibility of shark attacks.’

Reduction in nets

Dr Dicken said the SB has gone to great lengths to reduce the number of nets and lower the subsequent bycatch of dolphins, rays, turtles and other creatures.

‘In the late 1980’s we deployed 44 km of nets in KZN and this has been reduced to 13.5 km of nets and 177 drum lines (baited hooks on buoys).

‘At Richards Bay in 2019 we reduced from five double nets, one single net and three drum lines to three double nets, one single net and nine drum lines.’

There has been a corresponding decrease in the number of humpback dolphins snared: five in 2018; two in 2019; none in 2020 (but the nets were lifted during the lockdown period); and this is the first in 2021.

Irrational views

The identity of the specific dolphin that died last week – they are known by their unique dorsal fin shape and markings – will only be revealed after it has been sent from Richards Bay to the SB for dissection.

Shanan Atkins, marine biologist at the Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Science, currently engaged in humpback dolphin research at Richards Bay, called for better understanding and co-operation in solving the shark net dilemma.

‘We are devastated to hear that a youngster died in the shark nets. We have been working with the Sharks Board for years to reduce the number of animals getting caught. We have made good progress but sadly, there are still some shark nets and baited hooks (drumlines) that catch and kill dolphins, sharks and other marine creatures. These animals are critical to a healthy marine ecosystem – which is critical to people’s well-being in the long term.’

‘A frightening number of marine species that are caught in the shark nets are at risk of becoming extinct, like humpback dolphins, hammerhead sharks, raggies and others. Sharks are not as bad as they were made out to be in the past and we should not be systematically killing them with nets and hooks. These days, informed people are realising that we can, and should, allow sharks to exist along our coast.’

‘If it is necessary for our local and provincial government to take precautions to avoid shark bites in KZN, we would like them to use methods that do no harm to our sea life.’

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.
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.