Julie Andersen, Shark Angel and resident of Fish Hoek, appeals to fellow Cape Townians, asking for reason and a rational approach to the the latest shark incident amidst concerns, fears and even a few irrational and ridiculous demands that Cape Town needs to take drastic action - perhaps by culling those great whites which do swim close to shore in False Bay - or installing shark nets.
Throughout the world, South Africa is known for our rich natural environment and strong conservation efforts. Tourists flock to see our big seven on land – and underwater and, in turn, we lead the world with innovative wildlife preservation strategies. We understand the fragile balance of life, our need to conserve while reducing our impact, and the importance of a healthy environment to both our country’s economics and the world’s ecosystems. I am particularly proud of that sentiment in Cape Town. Which is why I am saddened by the reaction of some to the recent tragic shark accident in Fish Hoek.
Make no mistake. My heart goes out to the victim’s family; I can’t imagine the trauma and grief they must be experiencing. But while every shark incident is a tragedy for all involved, and the fear of sharks runs high, we still should maintain a rational perspective. And we should be well informed. Unfortunately, though Cape Town has a world-renowned, proactive shark management plan in the Shark Spotters, this individual did not heed the warnings.
The beach had been closed for over an hour due to two sharks being in the area and the shark flag was flying at the time of the incident. Sadly, it seems this could have been avoided.
It’s only natural to react with strong emotion to a situation that evokes our most primal fears. Indeed, as a society, there are few things we fear more than sharks. And our fears are fueled with media hype, since sharks sell papers and increase ratings. So it’s difficult to consider the facts and assume that balanced, enlightened perspective I adore in many Cape Townians.
Before we let our imaginations run wild fearful to dip a toe into the ocean, let’s consider these facts. For certain, when we step into the water, we enter the sharks’ world. Admittedly, Cape Town has some of the richest shark waters in the world – combined with the highest number of water users. So it may come as a surprise that in the last 50 years, only 7 fatal accidents have occurred in the Western Cape. In the U.S., the country with the highest number of attacks worldwide (5 times more than South Africa), your odds of drowning at a beach are 1 in 3.5 million. Your odds of dying from a shark bite are less than 1 in 264 million. In 2007, of the 601,133 deaths in South Africa, two were from sharks. Compare that to 6,153 deaths from vehicular accidents, 5,648 deaths due to assault and 49,722 deaths due to influenza and pneumonia, and there are far more rational things to be worried about. Before we claim we are going to lose tourists, let's remind ourselves that they spend spend hundreds of million of rand in shark tourism in our country every year both in the Cape and in Durban. Sharks are even on our list of big seven attractions - if we were going to scare off tourists or lose revenue, wouldn't we have chosen a better species to add to our big five? Around the world shark incidents occur - without impacting tourism - including in South Africa. Indeed, we benefit on the whole - not lose - from sharks.Before we rush into any solutions that involve killing sharks, let’s also consider the state of sharks – as well as their importance to the health of our oceans. Sharks are in critical danger of extinction; over 100 million sharks are killed each year. Regionally, 90% of populations of the large shark species– including white sharks – are destroyed. According to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), 1/3 of shark species face the threat of extinction with more to follow over the next decade. There are few places in the world that shark populations are healthy – and sharks are not under attack. We are uniquely lucky in Cape Town to share the waters with the population of sharks living on our coast. And we absolutely cannot afford to lose those sharks. As apex predators, they play a critical role keeping our oceans’ healthy. Eliminate sharks and we impact the ecosystem that generates more than ½ of the air we breathe, controls our planet’s temperature and weather, provides 1/3 of the world with food, and is one of our best defenses against global warming. Loss of sharks regionally in other places has led to the collapse of fisheries and the death of coral reefs. Our healthy, beautiful coast will join the thousands of other dead zones that typically surround most cities near the ocean. That will not only impact the whales, dolphins, fish, seals and penguins we hold so dear - but it will also impact us... immensely. Before we decide the Shark Spotter program no longer deserves our support, let’s examine their role and track record. Shark Spotters is a revolutionary program admired and celebrated all over the world, as it allows sharks and water users to live, for the most part, in peaceful coexistence. Their whole purpose is to reduce incidents – but we cannot believe they can control nature. Nothing is 100% effective against shark accidents – including the shark nets. But Shark Spotters is a program that works: for over four years, they have spotted 570 sharks and educated countless tourists and residents how to avoid accidents with only a single incident prior to this point, on a beach that was flying a black flag, meaning conditions were "enter at your own risk." And in this incident, the Shark Spotters had done their job - closing the beach over an hour prior to the incident. The victim, who was known to the Shark Spotters and was reported to have previously repeatedly ignored verbal warnings by the spotters to adhere to the shark warnings and beach closures, once again ignored the shark flag to enter the water. The Shark Spotters were literally running to remove him from the water when the incident occurred. While it is easy to point fingers, it seems there is nothing wrong with the system other than our collective disregard for it. The Shark Spotters prove that there are viable alternatives to killing sharks and also, that education and awareness go far to protect us. Why would we change that?
And finally, before we decide shark nets are a solution, we should consider their impact. Shark nets and drumlines are undiscriminating and devastating to local ecosystems. And since 40% of sharks are caught on the beach side of these nets – don’t be fooled in thinking they keep sharks out of our beaches. Regardless, Australia’s ragged tooth shark population is so low, they are reproducing them in test tubes, thanks to nets. In Durban, thousands of dolphins, turtles, rays and whales have met an untimely end at the end of nets and drumlines. South Africa proudly led the way as the first country to protect White Sharks in 1993. And now, the species is so threatened, it is possible we will see these animals largely disappear from the oceans during our – or our children’s – lifetimes. Are we really considering installing nets that will target the last remaining white sharks and wreak complete havoc on an ecosystem we cherish? In this day and age, with all we know about sharks – including their dwindling numbers, their critical role in our ecosystem, their behavior, and the infinitesimal risk they pose to us, I am hopeful we can continue to set an example and show the world what we Cape Townians are famous for. And that we will continue to protect one of our most economically and environmentally important assets. Instead of falling victim to media-created drama, I am hopeful we will maintain balance. That we will forget emotion to weigh the facts and consider the risks. That we will ignore those spewing all sorts of misinformed, fear-driven sentiment and respond with the data-driven truth. That we will stop looking for silver bullet solutions to calm those irrational fears and will continue supporting the innovative and effective Shark Spotters program, and as beach users, support them in their noble efforts. And most of all, that we will hold the line and not resort to simply killing a highly threatened animal that is critical to the health of one of our most precious ecosystems. After all, we are all in this together. Julie Andersen - Shark Angel & Resident of Fish Hoek
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