Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Fiction is not facts but still hurt the great white shark

Chris Fallows, shark conservationist and wildlife photographer, is angry; the great white sharks that are his subjects have been given a raw deal of late. "It’s astounding and disgraceful that there is such a lack of understanding of our marine predators," says Fallows. "Our great white sharks are seen as an incredible asset by international tourists — more and more of them are travelling huge distances just to come and view them — I just wish the local population would see them in the same way."

South Africa’s coastline offers the best viewing of great white sharks in the world. Fallows and his wife Monique have made a living out of photographing the whites and are especially known for their pictures of the sharks breaching: when they explode out of the sea while hunting seals swimming near the surface.

Breaching behaviour is particularly common around Seal Island, where the Fallows run small trips through their company, Apex Images Expeditions. "The tours are small and aimed at naturalists and scientists who are concerned with shark conservation," he says.

Fallows has worked with National Geographic, Discovery Channel and the BBC among others to produce films and photographs that have reached millions. His interview with National Geographic and the accompanying images were the number one story on the society’s website last year, receiving over 1.3 million visitors.

An unnecessarily dark cloud

Naturally, the tourism draw card for South Africa is huge, but recent attacks (shark pundits prefer to call them ‘encounters’) off Cape Town’s beaches, and the media response to them, have cast an unnecessarily dark cloud over the subject of sharks and tourism. There are a handful of shark cage diving tour operators who rely on a gung-ho approach to viewing sharks that tends to feed off the general fear of the whites, often stirred up by the media in response to attacks.

But the majority of operators are actually doing a great deal to run eco-sensitive tours and many are members of the Great White Shark Protection Foundation that places an emphasis on education, shark conservation and the well-being of guests.

In fact, conservationists like Fallows say that the number of encounters between sharks and humans have increased only marginally — due largely to there being more swimmers in the sea — and certainly have no connection to an increase in Great White shark numbers, which are actually stable to slightly decreasing with more sharks on our coastlines being hooked or poached.

Reports of a ‘Jaws’ off the Cape coastline, theories of targeted attacks and other media sensations are far from the truth and, say biologists, have only served to worsen the already precarious relationship between man and beast. Leslie Rochat is an environmental journalist and founder of the Afri-Oceans Conservation Association (AOCA), a non-profit group backed by the Save Our Seas foundation.

She's part of a special shark task team formed to deal with the perceived rise in shark attacks and to build awareness among Capetonians about sharks, in particular Great Whites and Ragged-tooths, the species on which Rochat has centred most of her work.

"The AOCA has three arms: one dedicated to science and research, another to education and awareness and the third to filming," she says. "Science alone can’t debunk the 'Jaws' myth — people need to be educated about sharks, that not all of them are dangerous and that most ‘attacks’ that occur are due to mistaken identity."

According to Rochat, sharks play an integral role in the marine environment. Without them, our fish stocks would decrease and fishermen, as well as every person who enjoys a good dish of seafood, would suffer. "The biggest threat to sharks are the nets, where most of them die, and anglers who catch Raggies and other shark species," she says.

Fallows agrees. He describes the KwaZulu-Natal shark nets, which kill as many as 60 Great Whites a year, as "a disgrace". Moves to remove the nets, though once under discussion, have somehow fizzled out. "The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board are a fishing company," says Rochat. "Though they feign conservation, they run a business making money from the fish they pull out of those nets. It’s quite ironic, really, that they slice open sharks for tourists all in the name of conservation."

Regulating anglers

Fallows suggests that extending electronic barriers or creating more tidal pools could make bathers in the Cape feel safer. As for regulating anglers, Fallows has publicly attacked marine policing operations. "Illegal fishing for Great Whites openly takes place in South Africa, with the perpetrators being so brazen as to advertise their activities in some of the world’s largest game fishing magazines," he wrote on National Geographic’s website. "On a larger scale, commercial fishing for various species of sharks goes unchecked, and virtually no regulations are in place to prevent the decimation of our shark stocks."

Diving (cage and other) operators have also come under fire from conservationists for being insensitive to sharks, since they often allow tourists to dive too close to breeding female Raggies (particularly on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast). Many cage diving operators have also been criticised for chumming — throwing offal and blood into the water to attract Great Whites.

Chumming not to blame

But experts agree that chumming is not actually to blame for the increase in attacks. Cage diving takes place in areas where sharks occur naturally and the media’s theory that chumming has bred a taste for human blood in Great Whites — a kind of Tsavo lion story for the sea — is false. "Fishing vessels have been chumming for as long as the fishing industry has been alive in the Cape," explains Rochat.

But while the media searches for answers (in sometimes weird and wonderful places), sharks — particularly Great Whites and Raggies — continue to have a bad name and swimmers and surfers still feel unsafe. Will isolated shark attacks serve to deter tourism, or can our sharks be used to attract tourists in other ways?

Fallows and Rochat agree that it all boils down to awareness. As soon as Capetonians become aware of the beauty and importance of sharks, that they are both an ecological treasure as well as a vast tourism resource, then the real reason behind shark attacks off our shores could be uncovered.

While Great White viewing as they hunt off Seal Island in False Bay is unsurpassed anywhere in the world, South Africa’s seas are the only place where Ragged-tooth shark populations are considered ‘healthy’. Australia’s Ragged-tooth sharks, which were blamed (wrongly) for a spate of attacks in the '60s, have never recovered from the resultant targeted fishing.

"The ignorance among Capetonians about our sharks, and their willingness to lap up media sensationalism on the subject, continues to amaze me," says Rochat, whose organisation will erect shark information boards on several Cape Town beaches by November.

Fallows explains: "We want to make as many people as possible aware of the beauty and importance of sharks, the threats they face, and what we can do to protect them and conserve them."


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