Saving the Great White Shark

Derek Watts
By Derek Watts | Follow @DerekWatts
Derek Watts has been a journalist for nearly 30 years, presenting on South African television since 1985 as a sports anchor. Derek has been an anchor and presenter on Carte Blanche since the programme's inception in 1988. See full profile

Originally published on 14 August 2016

GREAT WHITE SHARKS may be apex predators but the truth is they won’t stand up and be counted.

And that gives scientists and researchers a huge headache—not only because they find it almost impossible to complete an accurate shark census, but they butt heads over each other’s findings.

great white

A recent study by a Stellenbosch University team saying there are just 353 to 522 Great Whites gliding through our waters has been refuted by a number of specialists in the field.

It’s not that the academics are out of their depth. They have spent years taking thousands of pictures of dorsal fins and matching them with individual DNA samples.

But the Great White Shark is a deep-diving and travelling fellow and some experts say you can double the Stellenbosch figure to around a thousand sharks.

But after all that we still come to the same conclusion—the big fellow is extremely threatened.

Let’s go back to “Natal” in 1952 for a minute.  After 21 shark attacks in the preceding decade, seven of them fatal, it was decided to install Australian-developed gill nets along the Durban beachfront.

Then came the notorious Black December (which actually lasted until the following Easter) that saw shark attacks claim the lives of five bathers over 107 days.

In the midst of the Jaws-like panic and plummeting tourism, it was decided to spread the nets further up and down the coast.

What is interesting, or possibly frightening,  is that the average number of sharks caught these days along the KZN coastline matches the number caught in the very first year of operation – at which time they only featured on the Durban beaches. Around 550 sharks are today caught in the nets and with baited hooks. About 15 percent survive…the rest are sliced open in the name of research.

What surprised me while doing this story is that I thought the nets had a deterrent effect and that the sharks got a shade nervous when swimming in shallow waters with an obstruction blocking their rapid exit to the blue beyond.

But it seems that this is basically a fishing operation to reduce shark numbers at the specific beaches.

And it’s astonishing that around 26 of the annual KZN shark net casualties are, in fact, Great Whites.

There have been calls for the nets to be scrapped for many years. But how do you decide between safe swimming and surfing, a flourishing tourist industry and the decimation of the shark population?

Very simply you don’t.  You will get heated and emotional arguments on both sides of the proverbial ‘net’.

What we can assume is that nobody, including the KZN Sharks Board, can be proud of this assault on marine life.

What we need, and fast, is a barrier that protects bathers but doesn’t kill the sharks. And quest has spanned many decades.

Way back in 1992 I dived with legendary conservationists Ron and Valerie Taylor around Bazaruto to test the effect of electromagnetic pods as shark deterrents. They were very excited by the results.

But, apart from the developers squabbling over patents, not a lot has happened when it comes to the production of a large-scale beach barrier.

The latest offering, called Shark Safe, has been developed in the Cape and in our story we tested this combination of plastic tubes resembling kelp.

The KZN Sharks Board are still to fully test it, but the initial response has been that Shark Safe won’t be a realistic replacement for the nets.

So it could be back to the drawing board for the scientific world—after all America and Australia are just as desperate to find a solution.

Maybe the call should go out to that South African-born inventor and entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who keeps reaching for the stars.

Surely building a shark barrier can’t be more of a challenge than blasting rockets up to the International Space Station?