About the Issue:
It is hard to believe with all we know about sharks, including their dwindling numbers, their critical role in our oceans, and the small risk they actually pose to us, that the archaic process of killing these animals for bather “protection” still exists. But in KwaZulu-Natal, hundreds of harmless sharks - as well as turtles, dolphins and rays - still meet an untimely death every year as a result of the 28 kilometers of shark nets installed by KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board (KZNSB).
What are shark nets?
The concept is one of population control. Gill nets are installed in front of beaches to fish for sharks - and everything else that is unlucky enough to come across them - thus decreasing risks to bathers. Put simply, nets reduce local shark populations, and during their 60 years of installation in Natal, have had significant impacts on those populations, as well as other animals – all critical to the healthy aquatic ecosystem KZN is famous for.
What’s more, these nets are even installed in Marine Protected Areas without any species consideration. Indeed, KZNSB is the only fishery in South Africa that can legally kill endangered, protected species including the Great White and Whale Shark.
While the nets have been responsible for the death of over 33,000 sharks in the last thirty years, less than 12% were targeted species (whites, zambezis, tigers). 25,000 harmless sharks were killed that did not pose any threat to bathers. However, their deaths do pose a threat to the health of the environment – and the economy.
The nets’ bycatch is appalling during the same period: 2,211 turtles, 8,448 rays, and 2,310 dolphins. The nets caught 100% more dolphins and turtles and 800% more rays than zambezis. Sadly, all species of turtles and many of dolphins are listed as threatened or endangered.
Nets are so disastrous to the ecosystem, they were declared as “environmentally hazardous” in Australia, the only other country in the world that utilizes shark nets. The New South Whales government listed shark nets as a Key Threatening Process due to impacts on the ragged-tooth sharks, turtles, humpback whales and other wildlife. And, the NSW government is required to develop a Threat Abatement Plan, investigating humane and less ecologically damaging alternatives.
Fears running wild
Ironically, nets exist for psychological reasons far more than safety reasons. You are more likely to be killed in a hunting accident or lightening strike than by a shark. In 2007, one person worldwide was killed by a shark, while 793 people died in bicycle accidents and 49 died from dog bites. Of the over 100 species of sharks in Southern Africa, the vast majority are harmless to humans.
Throughout the world, people get into the water without shark deterrents; the extremely slim chance of even encountering a shark - much less being bitten - does not weigh heavily in their decision-making. Nor does it merit unnecessarily killing a threatened or harmless animal. In the last 100 years, there were over 4 times more shark bites in the United States than in Natal. And, there have never been nets in the U.S., including in the “shark bite capital” of the world, Volusia County, Florida. Even there, the risk of shark bite is so low that many more stitches are administered as the result of shell and glass lacerations than shark bites.
Not only do the nets pose considerable environmental issues, but they also pose economic issues, not to mention that the nets tarnish South Africa’s worldwide image as a leader in conservation. Live sharks are worth far more than dead ones. Shark diving in Aliwal Shoal generated an estimated R18 million during 2007, while cage diving in Gansbaai generates approximately R289 million per annum. Live sharks mean tourists, jobs and thriving economies. And that’s recurring income – not one time income when a shark is killed. Yes, while KZNSB is publicly funded, they do earn income selling shark products taken from their kill.
True, if one takes the nets at face value, there are far more destructive practices occurring worldwide. The nets are currently responsible for the deaths of between 500 - 700 sharks yearly, a very small percentage of the total number of sharks killed worldwide – or even in Southern Africa. Over one hundred million sharks will be killed this year. That’s 11,432 every hour. With some regional populations down 90%, we could witness the extinction of species during our lifetimes.
However, it is the mere existence of the nets that is the most damaging due to their impact on our collective psyches. Their installation reinforces our misguided and irrational fears of sharks, providing a very real example that our concerns are valid. This in turn fuels the biggest issue faced in shark conservation: the public’s apathy or even loathing towards sharks. The media-created and shark-net reinforced image of sharks makes it difficult for many people to understand why sharks are worth saving – let alone take measures to do so.
Misunderstood and mal-aligned, the stakes are life or death – and not just for sharks.
The frightening reality is, like them or not, we need sharks on this planet. Remove the apex predators from the oceans, and we are tampering with elements essential to our survival. And the livelihoods of the 400 million that rely on the oceans for their income. Sharks are a critical component in an ecosystem that controls our planet’s temperature and weather, provides 1/3 of the world with food, and generates more oxygen than all the rainforests combined. Recent studies indicate that regional elimination of sharks caused disastrous effects including the collapse of fisheries and the death of coral reefs.
Fortunately, there are many other options to the archaic practice of killing sharks with nets and drumlines, many of which have been implemented successfully in other locations – including the other coast of South Africa. Other methods of harmless deterrents such as electrical current, alloys, and chemicals are also being developed. If we can put a man on the moon, we certainly can determine a method to ensure sharks and humans can peacefully coexist in the shark’s domain. Programs like the Shark Spotters in the Western Cape prove that there are viable alternatives to shark nets and also, that education and awareness go far.
So why are there nets?
It could be said there was a time and place for nets. Years ago, the public knew little about sharks and the fear of attack was running high – and shark populations were far healthier than they are today. We could tolerate nets wreaking havoc on our world’s most important ecosystem, and implementing gill nets, the second most indiscriminate fishing method on the planet, was allowable, though thousands of harmless animals would subsequently be killed in the process. The public wanted and needed “protection” and nets served their purpose.
Since then, while shark fishing has skyrocketed eliminating a large percentage of shark populations, the public has been exposed to much information about the environment and biodiversity conservation as well as the sharks’ true behaviors towards humans. And many have gone far in proving there are other harmless shark deterrents. Shark conservation and the need to protect them is an established fact, as is the fact these animals are significantly misunderstood, with the actual risk of an incident being infinitesimal.
The days of killing animals out of fear are over. And one only need to look at Yellowstone Park, in the U.S., as a prime example as to the far-reaching impacts of these short-sighted acts. South Africa - a country whose environmental policies, fueled by booming eco-tourism, should be setting precedence for the world. At a time when we are racing through our natural resources at unsustainable rates, destroying wild animals simply because we can, or because of irrational fears fueled by a lack of knowledge, is no longer acceptable.
It is time for a change. It is time for the shark nets to be removed.
For several years now, many concerned citizens have spoken out against the nets. But this month, their voices have been united, fueling a unified effort to remove the nets. Save Our Seas, Shark Savers and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have joined forces with the support of SASC (South African Shark Conservancy) and AOCA (Afri Oceans Conservation Alliance) to help the public take back the waters of KwaZulu-Natal, providing a much-needed platform for a grassroots campaign.
The practice of killing sharks, and all else that come in contact with the nets, is an unnecessary and outdated practice that requires immediate examination and a short-term plan for termination. Consistent with the KZNSB Act of 2008, the Remove the Nets campaign insists the KZNSB commit their primary efforts to improving the environmental impact of their activities; the nets (and drumlines) are no longer an acceptable option. Through a public awareness and education campaign combined with new environmentally-friendly shark management approaches, all can peacefully coexist in the oceans.
Remove the Nets is a movement fueled by the public, who rightfully should determine the future of the nets. Ultimately, what this campaign achieves rests in your hands. Please become part of the solution. Visit www.removethenets.com to sign the petition and get involved.