Safety vs. conservation

Debate intensifies as humans meet great white sharks with growing frequency in the waters off South Africa

October 19, 2006|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- After yelling to his brother that a great white shark was swimming his way, Achmat Hassiem watched as it changed course - toward him.

The 13-foot shark bit his foot, shook violently and took him under. Seconds later, Hassiem was pulled into a nearby boat, alive but missing his right foot.

The August episode in False Bay was the most recent in a string of great white incidents around Cape Town that have stirred emotions about a creature often demonized, intensifying a debate over how to balance safety and conservation.

Some surfers say "rogue" sharks that repeatedly turn up near people should be killed. Researchers say there are no rogue sharks and that a hunting ban imposed by South Africa in 1991 is crucial to the endangered species' long-term survival.

In an attempt to explain the attacks, some have pointed to the growing cage-diving industry that puts tourists in an underwater cage and lures great whites for a close encounter. So far, no research has shown such a link. Others suggest that overfishing has lured hungry sharks closer to shore. And some say there are simply more people in the water.

Seemingly all agree that there has been an increase in unprovoked shark bites on people, or small boats, along Cape Town's nearly 200 miles of shoreline. In the past four years, 13 have been recorded, with three fatalities; in the previous 42 years, there were 17, one fatal. Nearly all are thought to have involved great whites. In two of the recent fatalities - a woman swimming and a spear fisherman - the bodies were never recovered.

"We're looking for a balanced approach to this issue without flying off the handle and reacting every time something happens," said Gregg Oelofse, Cape Town's environmental policy and research coordinator.

To that end, the city is expanding to 11 beaches a shark-spotting program that a group of surfers started at two beaches in 2004. Lookouts on hillsides or in towers sound a siren to warn of a shark and can close a beach until the fish swims away. The city plans to put independent observers on cage-diving vessels in False Bay to ensure that operators do not feed sharks, which could condition them to associate boats with food, and do not abuse the animals by enticing them to smack the cage to heighten the thrill for tourists.

Cape Town is also exploring the viability of using exclusion nets to keep sharks from beaches. Unlike shark nets used off Durban on the Indian Ocean, exclusion nets have fine mesh that does not entangle sharks or other creatures. The nets could be removed whenever whales are near.

But apart from the shark-spotting, none of the measures would enhance safety for surfers, kayakers and surf skiers who venture hundreds of yards from shore. Nets, for instance, would work only in calmer water between breakers and the shore.

The relative newness of kayaking and surf-skiing in Cape Town, along with advanced wetsuits that enable surfers to stay in the chilly water for hours, have raised the odds of shark encounters, Oelofse said. Most here involve great whites, considered the predator of the seas, and can occur when a shark mistakes a person for a seal or is simply curious or aggressive.

In July, Lyle Maasdorp, 19, had a close call off Fish Hoek while riding a surf-ski.

"Lyle said he felt the back of his surf-ski lifting out of the water and he heard a crunching sound," the National Sea Rescue Institute wrote. "He fell off his surf-ski and realized it was a shark when his hand landed on the shark's back."

Unhurt, Maasdorp scrambled onto another person's surf-ski and found safety on some rocks.

Paul Botha, who has surfed these waters for 40 years, said he fears surfing alone now.

"The instant I'm alone, `shark' comes into my head. That thought comes jolting up my spine. I'm looking around, wondering what's going on beneath me," he said.

Botha, an event promoter, has riled shark researchers by calling for "selective culling" of rogue sharks. He questions how they know rogue sharks are a myth when so much about great whites - their mating, breeding, migration patterns, population - is so poorly understood.

He also calls for sonar buoys to track sharks, a system he likens to the use of closed-circuit cameras to deter crime. The technology exists, but some experts say it might not be practical yet. An existing option for surfers is to wear electronic "shark shields" that emit weak pulses shown to repel sharks.

Botha blames the rise in attacks on overfishing that has deprived sharks of food, protections enacted in 1991 that he believes have increased the shark population, and cage diving.

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