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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa

Thu, 19 April 2018

Shark huggers, cull callers, brazen Brazilians, angry Aussies, cynical sceptics and all manner of couch clowns are spewing after the Margie shark decision. Get a life! writes Melissa Volker.


OUT OF REACH: Shark talk elicits an emotional human response. Photo by Moon on Unsplash

The WSL did what they had to do when they called off the Margaret River Pro. Whale carcasses floating in an already sharky part of the ocean don’t necessarily mix well with surf contests, even with the fatalistic "we play in their space, and should just accept what might happen" school of thought.

“The elevated risk during this season's Margaret River Pro has crossed the threshold for what is acceptable,” said the WSL, citing athlete safety as paramount.

WA has a history of intense debate over shark mitigation measures - perhaps prompted by a seriously above average number of shark encounters. Soon after the WSL cancelled the Margaret River Pro, the debate reignited on social media: shark nets vs drone spotters. Wimps vs tough guys. Tree huggers vs shark cullers. Aussies vs Brazilians. Anonymous jerks vs informed jerks.

Is Sophie being a helicopter mom? Uh? Is Rio’s allegedly dirty water any safer than WA’s sharky water? Can WA afford the loss of tourism? Are you touched in the head? Are you a malformed intellectual runt? Hey @#!!!$$ you! Are you a #$%^'er?! You &*!#$ people should $#@!%# in the #$^+!@ with the #$%^!!@ ... in the conservatory with the spanner by Mr White?

Alison-Kock SOSF_3-feeding

LIP SERVICE: A great white shark feeds on a dead whale, a bonus meal. Photo Alison Kock

Along with the debate, however, comes an environmentally dangerous narrative, not from the WSL, but from members of the public and most media organisations: "SAVAGED by SHARK", "Attacked" "Mauled", "Monster Shark".

That is how the headlines go when there are human/shark encounters or aggressive shark behaviour in the presence of prey like whale carcasses (example).

Dictionary.com defines SAVAGED "to assault and maul by biting, rending, goring, etc.; tear at or mutilate". Yes. Perhaps for some, that is what sharks do. But DO sharks have an alternative way to eat? Should they tuck their napkin in their grey suit? Do they have another way to sample, or feed?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is no. Does this choice of narrative affect the way we view sharks? To peddle this Jaws narrative is not the most ideal for important apex predators whose numbers are dramatically dwindling. Sharks, being sharks and not Nemo, feed in roughly two ways:

1. Suction Feeding: such as a whale shark. The animal sucks in water by depressing the oral cavity and moving the water over the gills by reversing the process. (Check out suction feeding)

2. Ram Feeding: such as a white shark or lemon shark. The animal over-swims the prey slightly to get it into its mouth. (Check out a lemon shark ram feeding)



SHARK SPOTTING: Safety teams buzz the shark that buzzed Mick Fanning at J-Bay in 2015.

In this article on feeding behaviour of Sixgill Sharks, we see that "elasmobranchs of the orders Squaliformes, Lamniformes, and Carcarhiniformes are mainly ram feeders, often with situation-specific suction and biting components particular to their prey".

So when this type of shark (which include white sharks) identifies a prey item, it swims toward the prey item, slightly overshooting the mark as it bites. This type of shark has no other way of getting prey into his mouth. No paws, no tentacles, no suction. The shark must ram and overshoot.

Does the shark have evil motives that headlines like SAVAGE, MAUL and ATTACK suggest? Usually it's just an investigation, and sometimes, unfortunately, due to the nature of the teeth, the size of the animal, and the forces of the jaw, the investigatory bite is fatal. But does the shark have evil motives that headlines like SAVAGE, MAUL and ATTACK suggest? Is the shark the villain of the piece, the savaging monster, the character from Jaws that sensationalist words imply?

Sharks have no other feeding behavior available. They ram, they bite, their teeth tear flesh. It's a function of their anatomy and physiology, not proof of evil intent.

Western Australia has a long history of shark fatalities. Since 2000, there have been 15 shark fatalities in WA. But does the history justify a fear-mongering narrative that could result in further decimation of shark populations?


ALTERNATIVE METHODS: Cape Town has a shark spotting system. Photo Spike

To put it into perspective, 43 cyclists have died on the roads in Australia so far in 2018. The Save Our Seas Shark Education Centre in Kalk Bay estimates that worldwide, five or six humans are killed by sharks each year. Five. Or. Six.

In response to fatal shark encounters, Western Australia ran a trial program in 2014 where they used baited drum lines to catch 172 sharks. Over 100 were released still alive (for how long is debatable) but the bulk of the animals caught were tiger sharks, and they were mostly undersized. Not one was a white shark. And recent statistics show that 75% of people are opposed to lethal shark mitigation methods in Western Australia.

Ben Gerring died in Western Australia after heroic efforts to save him following a shark attack south of Perth. When his father paid tribute to his late son, he added that he disagreed with killing sharks completely.

What is the solution for Western Australia? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that I don’t want sharks to be killed to facilitate my leisure pursuits.

shark-fin-unsplashIn December, I inadvertently paddled my SUP into a school of big gully sharks in a creek in the Eastern Cape. I now definitely know the difference between a shark and a sunfish. And I know what a shark nudge to the board feels like. The fear, prior to identifying the species, was real. But the awe-inspiring experience paddling with these powerful creatures is something I will never forget.

Each time I paddle out, I think about sharks. But as much as I am scared of them, I make that choice to go out. I take the risk but I remain grateful for the work of the Shark Spotters in Cape Town.

The use of more than 70 drum lines (like WA used during their cull programme) along our KZN coast is disturbing to many environmentalists.

University of Sydney lecturer Christopher Neff says of some of WA's previous policies: "The catch and kill policy is not a shark bite prevention policy — it is political theatre."

“And it’s a shame because it basically takes a terrible situation that happened to people, like [Ben Gerring], and makes it worse by suggesting the solution to the problem is to kill an individual shark. That’s not the solution to the problem.”

Dr Neff has worked in South Africa, tagging sharks. He believes this to be the most effective solution: “That technology is a significant advancement that is being used in Cape Town and being picked up around the world.”

In South Africa, about 4,500 people are killed on the roads annually. Four thousand five hundred. That is about five primary schools worth of people.

Greenpeace estimates 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year. ONE HUNDRED MILLION.

So, while the WSL did what they had to do for athlete safety, perhaps locally we should investigate the use of drum lines on our coast. Perhaps the public, and by inference the media, can construct a narrative about finding a way to safely guard shark populations and people populations without sensationalist fear mongering.

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