This week, the City of Cape Town in cooperation with the Shark Spotting Programme released a public caution to all water users of an increase in White shark activity in the False Bay area. Since the beginning of December, the Shark Spotters have recorded 24 shark sightings between Muizenberg and Fishhoek, and in Noordhoek.
False Bay has a natural abundance of shark species, including the White shark, who is also known for its unusually high predation of seals around Seal Island and breaching hunting technique. According to some research, the increase in shark activity during the summer months in the area could be associated with an increase in biological activity, e.g. birds and dolphins feeding on a bait ball of fish, providing an abundance of prey to sharks.
Although the incidence of shark attacks is still very low, the Cape Town area has seen its fair share of attacks, including one fatal attack a year ago in Fishhoek. However according to the Save Our Seas Rethink the Shark campaign you are significantly more likely to be killed by a defective toaster or by falling off a chair than by a White shark. Maybe that is a good enough reason to rethink the design of the chair…
The reason why sharks occasionally attack humans is still unclear. Sharks are intelligent and inquisitive animals who investigate their environment, but lacking arms and hands their mouth is used for close-up investigation. Some suggest that sharks attack humans when we accidentally find ourselves in their territory, much like bears, wolves, or big cats are known to do. Others claim that unprovoked shark attacks are attempts to feed on the victims and are often seen as mistaken identity.
Shark sceptics often blame attacks on the shark cage diving industry and the increase in operators in the Cape area.
From research undertaken by amongst others Alison Kock at the Shark Research Centre at University of Cape Town, there is currently no evidence to link shark cage diving activity with an increased risk to bathers and other water users in the False Bay area.
There is a potential risk of conditioning IF operators do not comply with regulations and allow sharks to feed on the bait, i.e. sharks linking cage diving boats with food. However there is no evidence to assume that sharks will therefore see water users as potential prey. The opposite has actually been proven to hold more truth, when operators stick to the set regulations and do not allow shark to feed on the bait, shark loose interest quickly and move away from the boat after 10-15 mins.
During a workshop on White shark management in Cape Town a few years ago, it was recognised that the non-compliance with existing regulations of cage diving operators was mostly client driven – the thrill of a JAWS experience. This obviously calls for setting more realistic expectations with tourists and raising greater awareness of shark conservation issues.
However, as Alison Kock and Ryan Johnson state in their paper ‘South Africa’s White Shark cage-diving industry – is there cause for concern?’
Even if the public perceive an increase in danger, this will have a negative effect on the conservation status of white sharks in South Africa, the perceived safety of beaches in the Western Cape, and the long term viability of the cage diving industry.
As a result, an important part of Cape Town’s shark management and safety strategy is the Shark Spotter programme. This programme has shark spotters on duty in strategic locations along the coast, who scan the water for any shark activity and communicate information to water users with 4 different warning flags and a siren being raised when a shark is spotted. The programme not only increases water users’ safety and hence aids shark conservation, but at the same time creates employment, skills development and poverty alleviation.
Being portrayed as a villain for 35 years, it is time to Rethink the Shark and give the Great White the credit it deserves. It is not only an incredibly beautiful and sophisticated animal, it also holds a key role as an apex predator in marine ecosystems and False Bay is an important habitat for White sharks, hosting significant concentrations of adult and near-adults. Historically it apparently was a pupping and nursery ground for White sharks and it may still hold this significant role.