Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Debate continues concerning how to protect both the Great White shark and swimmers

Cape Town - Seemingly incongruous recommendations to conserve the Great White shark in the Cape's False Bay basin while offering protection to bathers were at an advanced stage, shark experts said on Wednesday.

"The report tries to walk the middle road, it is a voice of reason, I think," said Dr Deon Nel, aquatic unit manager at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa.

Nel was talking about an initiative to try to find ways of reconciling the safety of recreational bathers and at the same time conserve the maligned Great White in an area world-famous for its presence.

He said a specialist workshop was convened in May between a group of shark experts, representing various institutions and government departments.

At this meeting a number of recommendations on Great White shark conservation, management and mitigation, recreational safety, emergency response and communication and awareness were agreed upon.

Nel said a salient recommendation tried to overcome the nettle of authority and jurisdiction, with the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, South African National Parks and the City of Cape Town all having a vested interest in False Bay and its denizens, both gilled and two-legged.
"A key recommendation is that the existing Great White Shark working group, which has representation from all tiers of government, be constituted on a more formal basis," said Nel.
A protected species

Another important recommendation was that "non-invasive shark mitigation measures", such as the shark spotting programme, were considered to be more appropriate than capture devices, such as nets found along Durban.

Great White sharks are listed as a protected species in South Africa. The only time they can be captured is when a special permit is issued to collect a specimen for scientific purposes.

According to Nel, during the 1980s shark numbers dived as trophy-gatherers eager to show-off the shark's impressive tooth-rimmed jaws, took to the water in a frenzy.

Nel said there was no accurate data on Great White numbers in False Bay - the site of a number of fatal human predations and maimings over the years by arguably the oceans' apex predator.
Less than a week ago, Fish Hoek lifesaver Lyle Maasdorp, 19, survived unscathed a close encounter with a presumed Great White when it attacked his surf-ski and bit a sizeable chunk out of it.

Data from the Natal Sharks Board shows that there have been six shark attacks, three of them fatal, around the Cape Peninsula during 2003, 2004 and 2005.

Two of the six attacks occurred at Noordhoek beach on the Atlantic ocean side, with the remaining four in the False Bay area.

Solid proposals

And with Great White numbers stabilising and possibly even increasing, Nel cautioned against the erroneous extrapolation, often in the thrashing aftermath of an attack, that more sharks meant more attacks.

"There are obviously many variables, although the one that swamps all others is the increase in recreational bathers in the water. It has increased exponentially, specifically people who venture further off-shore. Surfing, surf-ski paddlers, and spear fishing are popular sports. Improvements in wetsuits also mean more people are in the water," said Nel.

He said the City of Cape Town was currently drafting a policy document, informed by May's recommendations and substantiated by 15 scientific papers, which would guide the safety aspects of people and sharks in False Bay.

"The outcomes of the May meeting has informed the development of the strategy that we will be putting forward to the City of Cape Town for adoption later this year, possibly September," confirmed city environmentalist Gregg Oelofse.

Oelofse said the findings and recommendations would be made available to the public for their information and comment.

Herman Oosthuizen, of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, said the recommendations were being formalised so that "solid" proposals were put forward.

"Then they go to top management and Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, but it's too early to say if they will endorse them because they haven't seen them yet," said Oosthuizen.


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