Last Sunday, Aliwal Shoal Scuba had the privilege of taking part in the fourth annual Paddle Out for Sharks. We have been involved in this event since its inception in 2012, and continue to be amazed every year by its growth. In a tradition borrowed from Hawaiian surf culture, the purpose of the Paddle Out is to commemorate the countless sharks killed every year, both in the nets that line the KwaZulu-Natal coast, and elsewhere around the world. Water users from all disciplines – whether they be surfers, divers, marine biologists or underwater photographers – gather on backline to scatter flowers on the sea’s surface, and in doing so, raise awareness of the many issues threatening our sharks. This is a peaceful protest, but one has gathered momentum every year until an event sparked by a local tragedy has inspired sister protests not only around South Africa, but also as far afield as Australia. Australia, like South Africa, is one of the few countries around the world that continues to actively kill sharks as a method of bather protection.
The first Paddle Out for Sharks took place here on Aliwal Shoal. It was organised by local dive operators in collaboration with Shark Angels, an international organisation dedicated to global shark conservation. The trigger for this landmark event was the capture of no fewer than thirteen tiger sharks in the nets over the course of two days in April 2012. Those that have dived with us will know that seeing more than one or two tiger sharks at a time is a cause for major excitement, even during peak tiger season. The thirteen sharks caught over those two days therefore represented a significant proportion of the Aliwal tiger population, and the tragedy served as a terrible reminder of the devastation caused by the KZN shark nets. Worse still, the sharks were caught at Park Rynie and Scottburgh – two beaches that fall within the boundaries of the Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area. Five species of shark are theoretically afforded complete protection within the MPA – the tiger, the great white, the bull shark, the whale shark and the ragged-tooth shark. And yet, the nets remain in place within the MPA – nets whose official purpose is to catch and kill as many tigers, great whites and bull sharks as possible. It was this hypocrisy that sparked the outcry that ultimately led to the first Paddle Out for Sharks.
Since then, the Paddle Out has become a protest against all shark deaths. Every year, approximately 100 million sharks are killed around the world, either as the intended target of commercial fisheries, or as accidental by-catch. Approximately 73 million of those sharks are killed to satisfy the demands of the Asian shark fin trade – a prime example of why events like the Paddle Out need to take place. It is awareness, and only awareness, that will one day end the demand for shark fin soup. For South African sharks, the KZN nets remain a major cause for concern, however. Just a few days before this year’s Paddle Out, at least fourteen large sharks were killed in the nets at Margate Beach, most of them dusky sharks attracted by the early and unexpected arrival of a pocket of sardines. Natal Sharks Board, the organisation responsible for implementing and maintaining the nets, promises to remove the nets for the duration of the annual Sardine Run, as the number of transient pelagics travelling through our coastal waters increases dramatically during this time. Unfortunately for the Margate duskies, the Sharks Board were remiss in tracking the progress of the sardines, and the nets were not removed in time to prevent fourteen unnecessary deaths.
This is not an isolated case. According to the Sharks Board, the nets are only intended to kill the three shark species considered to pose a threat to humans – i.e. the great white, the bull shark and the tiger shark. Unfortunately, the nets are indiscriminate, and every year countless non-targeted animals are killed as collateral damage – including whales, dolphins, rays, turtles, and the many harmless species of shark that live on our coast. It is estimated that the nets kill approximately 700 sharks every year, and that they have been responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 turtles, 2,000 dolphins and 8,000 rays in the last thirty years. In theory, the nets exist to protect swimmers from shark attack; and yet, their efficacy in this respect is debatable. The nets do not reach the seafloor, and consequently do not stop ‘dangerous’ sharks from approaching the beaches. In fact, 40% of the sharks killed in the nets are caught on their way back out to sea. Dead animals caught in the nets may even serve as an attractant for larger sharks – which makes it hard to understand why the South African taxpayer contributes a staggering R53 million every year towards the maintenance of nets that are only semi-effective at best.
The threat of shark attack is small, and yet, the impact of the occasional incidents that happen along our coastlines can be devastating. There are alternatives that offer surfers and bathers peace of mind without having a drastic impact on the marine environment – alternatives that should be considered as a replacement for the nets. These include shark spotting systems like the ones used in Cape Town, and shark-safe barriers like the ones being trialled off Gansbaai. It it critical that we find a way to co-exist with sharks. They are the apex predators at the top of the ocean food chain, and if they are removed, the fragile balance upon which the health of the oceans depends will be lost. Through raising awareness and inspiring people to care about the continued existence of our sharks, the Paddle Out for Sharks is working to make co-existence a real possibility for the future. We are proud to have been involved with this initiative from the start, and are thrilled to have watched it grow into a powerful international movement.
This year, our boat was full of divers who braved freezing temperatures and huge swells to stand up for the sharks of South Africa. We hope that next year, you’ll be among them – to find out more about the Paddle Out or to reserve your place for 2016, get in contact via Facebook or send us an enquiry!