Dr Jean Harris
6 minute read
31 Aug 2020
2:54 pm

Sharks are ‘rhinos of the sea’ – Why are we not protecting them?

Dr Jean Harris

A large number of shark and ray species still remain classified as ‘data deficient’.

In South Africa, sharks are mostly not considered as food, or as animals deserving of our care and empathy, but rather to be feared. Photo for illustration: iStock

When it comes to fishing, people have a wide range of views and opinions. For some, fishing is their favourite holiday activity. For others, fishing is an absolute necessity to put food on the table or a profitable commercial venture.

Yet, some see fishing as an inhumane sport.

When sharks are added to this diverse mix of somewhat polarised perceptions, things tend to become even more emotive. In South Africa, sharks are mostly not considered as food, or as animals deserving of our care and empathy, but rather to be feared.

There is, however, a growing appreciation of the economic value of living sharks as a tourism attraction and the important role they play in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems (and productive fisheries), as well as their vulnerability to modern pressures.

It is in this context that concerns have arisen about the damage that South African commercial fisheries could be doing to local shark populations, and the long-line fishery that targets sharks along the southern and south-east coast is causing notable upset.

Most people seem, however, to be unaware of the strong laws in place in South Africa that disallow shark-finning and the regulations and permit conditions that prohibit the intentional capture and the keeping of certain species of sharks.

Given that fishing for sharks in South Africa has been practised for more than 100 years, why is there such an outcry about it now? A

piece of this puzzle is no doubt the disappearance of the great white sharks from the shark diving tourism areas in the Cape.

One hypothesis for this disappearance is declining stocks of soupfin and smoothhound sharks targeted by the long-line demersal shark fishery. This notion is championed by shark diving operators, and conflict between them and shark fisheries is fuelled when tourists witness the fishing of sharks during their outings.

There are, however, several alternative hypotheses that may explain the sudden decline of white sharks in Cape waters, such as climate change impacts, unfavourable conditions due to harmful algal blooms and the resurgence of orcas.

The latter seems difficult to dismiss without further investigation, as the reappearance of orcas seems too closely timed with the disappearance of great whites to be coincidental. There also does not seem to be scientific basis to link the great white disappearance directly to a decline of smaller shark prey species that are caught in the long-line fishery.

Studies of the diet of great white sharks suggest that they feed on a diverse range of prey including pilchards, squid, rays, sharks, seals and whales. Thus, the disappearance of pilchards would be as valid a reason for the disappearance of the great white as the decline of the soupfin shark.

According to the department of environment, forestry and fisheries (Deff) there are six demersal long-line fishery rights’ holders that are permitted to fish in our coastal waters, from the Orange River on the West Coast (but rarely fishing north of Table Bay) to the Kei River on the East Coast.

These vessels use spool systems to set weighted longlines baited with up to 2,000 hooks (averaging about 900) and use bottom-set gear. Unlike active fishing methods, where nets are dragged through the ocean, long-line fishing is passive, with a hook of a certain size with a specific type of bait set to catch certain species.

Such methods are reported to catch fewer species unintentionally (bycatch species) and have less negative impact on the seafloor because the gear is light and stationary. However, as with most fisheries, while some animals caught are hauled in alive, allowing unwanted or prohibited species to be released, there is still a measurable bycatch in this fishery.

This unintended catch includes threatened species such as great white and hammerhead sharks that die (asphyxiate) when held tethered for too long and not able to swim to move water over their gills.

Interestingly, considering the controversy around this specific shark-targeting long-line fishery, it appears to be an activity that is well-regulated and monitored by Deff.

The fishery is managed by total allowable effort, which means that the number of boats is limited and there are restrictions on the type of gear, the fishing areas and the species that can be landed. Permit conditions also stipulate mitigation measures against bird and turtle bycatch, and permit-holders are obligated to fill in detailed log sheets and comply with position tracking requirements.

The vessels must offload in a few dedicated harbours, where catches are monitored. This information, together with life history data of the targeted species, is used in stock assessments that check the status of the stocks and inform management plans that intend to ensure that the species are fished sustainably.

Deff is in the process of adjusting the permit conditions of this fishery to reduce catches of smoothhound and soupfin sharks. Deff is also working directly with long-line operators to develop systems to obtain real-time information on catch and bycatch, including use of camera-observer systems to record catches and bycatches, to enhance adaptive management.

This should be welcomed by both critics of this fishery as well as the permit-holders whose interests lie in sustainable fisheries for the future.

Sharks and the issues around their use recently caught the attention of Minister of Deff Barbara Creecy, who has appointed a panel to investigate their management and conservation.

The impetus for this encouraging intervention might well have been spurred by advocacy from civil society groups with diverse interests in the health of the oceans and the services that healthy oceans provide. The new “Shark Attack” campaign is such a voice and underwrites a project aimed at protecting the many threatened sharks and rays that occur in South Africa’s waters.

I am heartened by the call from civil society for action to ensure biodiversity and fisheries resources in our oceans are used wisely, but alarm bells are ringing for me.

Sharks are like the rhino of the sea – in stature and disposition, and in their vulnerability. Like rhino, sharks are targeted for non-food and perverse uses and their body parts high-value commodities in a lucrative illegal international trade.

They also have similar life-history traits – slow growth, late to mature, low birth rates, high dependence on specific areas and habitats – which predispose them to a high risk of decimation and extinction.

Globally more than 25% of chondrichthyans (shark, rays and chimaeras) species are threatened, according to the Red List published by the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN).

Worryingly, a large number of shark and ray species still remain classified as ‘data deficient’ – meaning we do not know enough about their population numbers to assess their status – and a lot of these could very well be under threat.

Globally, at least 28 populations of sharks and rays are locally or regionally extinct.

In South Africa, the sawfish is one such species with the last confirmed encounter in 1999.

It is clear some shark and ray species are equally, or more, endangered and at risk of extinction than white and black rhino. Why are we not affording them similar protection and attention?

Dr Jean Harris is the executive director of WILDOCEANS, a programme of the WILDTRUST. 

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