Truth About Removing The Nets

Nets work by reducing localized shark populations, and during their 60 years of installation in Natal, have had a significant impact on those populations, as per studies conducting by Sharks Board themselves. 

The population of sharks – particularly those targeted by nets – are drastically reduced in the Eastern Cape to their numbers prior to the nets installation, thanks in part to the meshing program.  If the nets were removed, due to the slow reproductive and maturity rates of sharks, it would take decades for shark populations to recover. Given all the other threats to sharks including habitat destruction and overfishing, it is questionable if the local populations will ever recover.  The nets have spent years doing their damage. Removing them at this point would not have an immediate impact.

While data was not effectively collected until 1978, anecdotal data available suggests records of very large numbers of sharks caught when meshing was begun.  While annual total shark catches can fluctuate sharply, there is no question that today shark populations are very much smaller than in the 1950‘s & 60’s when attack rates were higher. In Durban, the total catch in the nets was 552 sharks the first year the seven nets were installed. By the second year it had plummeted to 182.

And, many people do not realize that one of the primary reasons nets were installed was due to the whaling that occurred off the coast of Durban. Shark populations were abnormally high due to the remains from the whaling stations that operated off the coast until 1975, providing sharks with a constant source of food.  Whale oil and meat, which is a strong attractant to sharks, flowed from Durban beaches to the north or Amanzimtoti to the south - the exact sites of the most shark attacks during the peak of the whaling industry.  With this source of food no longer available, it is unlikely shark populations will ever attain the sizes of those off Durban in the 50’s & 60’s.

The end of whaling in 1975 should have signified the reduction and removal of the nets, as shark numbers would have normalized, and there were no longer attractants luring sharks into situations that easily result in attacks. However, 1975 also saw the release of “Jaws”, and the sharks’ fate was sealed for another 30 years. 

Does the amount of sharks killed by the nets vs. other fisheries worldwide really merit this kind of attention? 

True, if one takes the nets at face value, there are far more destructive practices occurring worldwide. The South Africa shark nets, at this point, are responsible for the deaths of between 500 and 700 sharks yearly, a very small percentage of the total number of sharks killed worldwide – or even in Southern Africa.

However, it is the mere existence of the nets that is the most damaging to the overall conservation of sharks due to their impact on our collective psyches. The installation of shark nets reinforces our misguided and often times irrational fears of sharks, providing a very real example that our concerns are valid. This in turns fuels the biggest issue faced in shark conservation: the public’s apathy or even loathing towards sharks.

Say the word “shark” and most people immediately imagine a bloodthirsty monster worthy of a “Jaws” remake. As a society, there are few things we fear more than sharks, with shark attacks consistently ranking as one of the top three most-feared natural dangers in most studies. And the media fuels this fear since shark attacks increase periodical sales and audiences, so any incident – regardless of severity, reason or location – is quickly broadcast throughout the world. We have become victims of media-created dramas, and the reality of the nets ensures that we will never be able to balance our fears, become more logical, and give sharks a rightful chance. Not only have several generations of South African’s grown up to fear sharks as a result of the mere existence of the nets, but many around the world refer to South Africa’s shark management approaches as guidelines for personal and community decision making. 

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. And thus, countless animals continue to be killed without us noticing or caring. Far more than are physically killed by the actual nets.

Why not implement drumlines as an appropriate long-term solution for nets?

In Australia, many nets have been replaced with drum lines. And in South Africa, the shark nets are systematically being complemented with drum lines – which are essentially sunken hooks baited with fish on a daily basis. This is theoretically an improvement on the nets. And indeed, initial reports indicate whale, dolphin, ray and turtle captures have been reduced. However, KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board has indicated that in the short period of installation, the drumlines have done much damage to the local population of two non-targeted shark species.

Indeed, drumlines are targeting even more sharks. And, they are resulting in more shark deaths. Sadly, it seems to be the small, harmless dusky and scalloped hammerhead sharks as well as the tiger sharks that take the bait most frequently.

One is also justified in wondering about the potential issues that result in attracting sharks to the beaches filled with people with bait. Sharks swimming nearby could be lured into the area where bathers exist due to the bait, the intent of the drumlines.

Can we really support something that will displace a few hundred workers?

Over 170 people are employed by KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board.  Given their skill set, there is no reason to believe they could not be reassigned to a shark-spotting program or a patrol program to ensure the safety of bathers as well as the protection of animals in Marine Protected Areas, or a similar program.  With R40 million regained, it is very feasible these jobs could be created in a similar sector – yet one that conserves South Africa’s (as well as the world’s) resources, and thus, is long-term investment focused.

What about liability? Won’t a net removal result in lawsuits?

Many refer to liability when it comes to nets, and fear if they are removed, the local governments will pay the price in a lawsuit. However, there is no case history on file to suggest that such a suit would be successful. Additionally, there is nothing to suggest that removing the nets would result in an immediate incident.

Ultimately, the public must accept the risk that comes with swimming in the oceans and not look to blame any entity for an unforeseeable tragedy. A shark attack is a potential danger that must be acknowledged by anyone that frequents the oceans, but it should be kept in perspective.  The public must weigh the risk of removing sharks to the long-term health of local and worldwide

What are our other options to Shark Nets?

There are many other options to the archaic practice of killing sharks thru the installation of shark gill nets and drumlines, many of which have been implemented successfully in other locations. Ultimately more effort needs to be invested into determining what is the right solution for KwaZulu-Natal, given its unique characteristics (types of sharks and their behaviors, topography, ocean conditions, water users, etc.)  If we can put a man on the moon and go the depths of the ocean floor, we certainly can determine a method to ensure sharks and humans can peacefully coexist in the same waters.

In Tokyo, shark nets have been installed that are permanent, with mesh so fine that there is literally no bycatch. And, it was KZNSB itself who originally worked on the “Shark Shield” which emits an electrical pulse that supposedly wards off sharks, and surfers have used the technology with some mixed results. Finally, in Australia, nets are simply removed for four months a year. Others are experimenting with scents in the water and magnets to repel sharks.

On the other coast of South Africa, the Western Cape, another ingenious program has been rolled out in an area with a high number of water users and a healthy white shark population. Instead of drumlines and nets, a unique program called Shark Spotters allows the white sharks and the water users to live in peaceful coexistence – without harm to anyone, including the sharks. Shark Spotters sit high atop the hills flanking the beaches armed with binoculars and radios. All day long, the Shark Spotters watch the shoreline looking for white sharks – who are known to frequent the inshore waters especially in the summer time. When a shark is spotted, the Shark Spotter sounds an alarm announcing the shark’s presence and also hoists a black flag with a white shark on it.

It is astounding to see the surfers and swimmers, quite accustomed to the alarms and the sharks, nonchalantly exit the water and await the “all clear” sign. No panic or pandemonium. Just a patient acknowledgement it is we human beings that the sharks are generously sharing their environment with, not the other way around. And in its four years of operation, there has not been a single incident. 

Whether a program like Shark Spotters, or some of the other options described above, would work in KwaZulu-Natal with different types of sharks and topography, remains to be seen. But it does prove that there are viable alternatives to shark nets and also, that education and awareness go far to battle the perceived need of protection. 

Sadly, the public’s, the media's, and government's responses to shark attack are usually emotional. As a result, there has been no rational public debate or discussion on how to end this environmentally disastrous and archaic process. While all accidental deaths are tragedies for those involved, and the fear of attacks runs high, it should not eliminate the need for a dialogue.

An independent symposium must be organized and attended by representatives from various sectors: conservation, science, travel & tourism, sea rescue, marine behavioralists, etc to outline potential options and a targeted plan for the net and drumline removals, complete with an education and awareness campaign.

Per the 2008 KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Act which states the KZNSB will “promote biodiversity by striving to reduce any negative environmental impact”, a serious re-evaluation that results in the elimination of the nets is long overdue. Destroying the very animals that keep our oceans – and our population – healthy is no longer an option.

Isn’t the removal of nets to see what happens is gambling with human lives?

Removing the nets in certain locations, or during certain times of the year is a very viable option towards net elimination.

The nets are removed for two months of the year already, to account for the Sardine Run, and the vast amounts of animals they catch – both intended and unintended. Beach users are warned accordingly, but not a single death has occurred as a result of the net removals during this time period. As well, there are situations in which not every shark net is set off every netted beach every day. Finally, in 1989, more than double the amount of shark nets were installed in KwaZulu-Natal than are today, and once again, the statistics of shark incidents have not changed.

If one uses Australia as a guide, the shark netting procedure has changed a number of times in the past with positive results. For more than three years from January 1943 to March 1946 during World War II, shark nets were completely removed due to the lack of boating resources. During this period there were no shark attacks of any kind on Sydney area surf beaches. And, they started removing the nets completely during the months of June and July starting in 1983 and May and August starting in 1989. No increase in the very low incidence of shark attacks has occurred since those four months were declared net-free. One can draw an easy conclusion that a reduction in shark nets does not result in an increased risk to shark attack or a gamble with human lives.

Will the removal of nets eventually result in an incident? And would that incident have occurred if nets were still installed? No one can know for sure. Ultimately, it comes down to education and awareness and a campaign needs to be kicked off immediately.  The public must accept the risk that comes with swimming in the oceans – whether a beach is netted or not. A shark attack is a potential danger that must be acknowledged by anyone that frequents the oceans, but again, it should be kept in rational perspective.  Is the minor risk worth jeopardizing the long-term health of local and worldwide ecosystems? Should we all be left quivering at the shore fearful of a shark attack? Science, reason and understanding all prove otherwise.

Natal Shark Board Net & Drumline Locations