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Written by: Melissa Reitz

A number of shark attacks in South Africa this year has yet again fuelled public fear of the elusive great white shark. But the bearer of sharp teeth beneath the waves is far less dangerous than we imagine.

© Chris Fallows / Apex Shark Expeditions
© Chris Fallows / Apex Shark Expeditions

Humans are almost never the victims of great white sharks, but great whites are always the victims of our mythology about them. And that mythology is doing damage to their species.

“Statistically shark attacks remain one of the lowest annual causes of human injury and fatality by wildlife globally,” says Gregg Oelofse, head of environmental policy and strategy for the City of Cape Town. “Yet they retain extraordinary high media and public interest.”

Contrary to popular belief, shark attacks are not increasing in South Africa and neither are great white shark populations. Over the past 30 years there has been no increase in attacks. Between 1985 and 1994, 71 incidents occurred, 65 incidents from 1995 to 2004 and 71 incidents from 2005 to date – in total an average of 6.9 encounters a year.

An encounter is not necessarily an attack. In July an Australian pro-surfer, Mick Fanning, had a rare encounter with a white shark while surfing the finals of the J-Bay Open. An overly curious shark moved in a little too close and became entangled in the surfboard’s leash before being frightened off. No harm came to shark or surfer, but the encounter was labelled as an attack and made headlines around the world. This kind of media frenzy, coupled with misconception, sends waves of panic along coastlines, resulting in false opinions and urgent calls for tough safety solutions.

People do get bitten. In June two great white attacks – one day apart – occurred along the Garden Route. But considering that people are swimming in the shark’s pantry, an attack from time to time is inevitable. They are predators. Even if you swim in the sea, however, you’re statistically more likely to die from a bee sting than a shark attack.

The media hype has given rise to the impression that the numbers of great whites are growing and that sightings are becoming more frequent. But according to population assessments done in 2013 by the Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT) in Gansbaai – a white shark hotspot – great white numbers remain low.

“There is no evidence of a tangible recovery in the numbers of this species,” says the report. It noted that an estimated population of 908 individuals visited the region that year, as opposed to around 2,000 in the early nineties when a previous survey was done. Far from a finding of increased shark numbers, the report expressed concern and recommended that IUCN move the species red data listing for great whites from vulnerable to threatened.

“In False Bay over the past 10 years people started noticing more great whites,” says Chris Fallows of Apex Shark Expeditions in Cape Town. “But it is the same sharks being seen all the time. It’s just that these days there are many more people on the water plus shark spotters, so there is more chance of sharks being seen.”

Data collection using acoustic and satellite tracking began in South Africa 10 years ago and, although great white sharks are one of the most tagged species in the world, very little is yet known about them.  In addition to population numbers, their lifecycle and breeding patterns remain largely unknown and no pregnant females have ever been recorded in Southern African waters. This, coupled with heavy pressure from fisheries, marine ecotourism, pollution, bather protection and climate change adds to the vulnerability of the white shark species.

Morne Hardenberg / Shark Explorers
© Morne Hardenberg / Shark Explorers

Although great whites are legally protected in South Africa, little is done to enforce this law. Only one fisherman has been tried and sentenced for catching a white shark since legislation was passed over 20 years ago. Added to this is the need for international cooperation. Since white sharks are migratory, local legal protection ends once they move up the coast to Mozambique where they can be legally hunted for trophies and food.

The worst possible solution to public concern is culling. Killing marine apex predators has detrimental effects on marine eco-systems. “Culling great whites can cause an imbalance of marine ecology, such as more jellyfish and dirtier water,” says Dr Enrico Gennari of Oceans Research in Mossel Bay.

He feels that the best solution to avoid shark-human interactions is knowledge, and he is involved in developing an online encounter probability programme. This will enable users to check the odds of encountering white sharks in a particular area before entering the water.

In 2014 a shark culling policy was introduced in Western Australia after a series of attacks, but a public outcry softened the policy to allow the deployment of drumlines to catch and kill only sharks that posed a ‘serious threat’ in swimming areas. Since great whites are known to make transoceanic migrations, this isolated solution to bather safety could have a negative effect on migrating sharks as far away as South Africa.

The less we know about the iconic great white shark, the more its species will continue to be under pressure. And the more we trespass on their territory, the less room there will be for them to perform their vital role in marine biodiversity. It’s time to deconstruct the mythology. Great whites are our close neighbours and we need to afford them that respect.

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