World Oceans Day in SA

The great white shark, a protected species
in South Africa. (Image: Brian Skerry,
National Geographic)

Gansbaai, on South Africa’s south-western
coast, is a well-known shark hotspot.
(Image: Chas Everitt)

Janine Erasmus

South Africa commemorated World Oceans Day and the declaration of 2009 as the International Year of the Shark by highlighting the country’s continuing commitment to shark conservation.

Water and Environmental Affairs minister Buyelwa Sonjica hosted the commemorative event held on 8 June in Gansbaai (Afrikaans, meaning “bay of geese”) in the Western Cape, situated just south of Hermanus.

The national theme for 2009 was “One Ocean, One Climate, One Future”, a message that highlights the need for careful consideration of the oceans in any climate change strategy.

World Oceans Day falls in South Africa’s national environment month of June, which also focuses on climate change in 2009.

The ocean and the atmosphere are closely linked, as the ocean generates oxygen and soaks up excess carbon dioxide – some experts say as much as 40% of all carbon dioxide produced by human activity. The ocean also provides millions of people with food and a livelihood, and its health and the future survival of all living creatures are inextricably bound.

This is the first observation of World Oceans Day, which was declared by the United Nations as 8 June each year, starting in 2009 with the official theme of “Our Oceans, Our Responsibility”.

Shark conservation

Sonjica described South Africa’s continuing progress towards a better understanding of the importance of sharks.

“For several years we have committed to study these animals both for improving our understanding of their often secretive behaviour and for understanding our marine ecosystems,” she said. “South Africa, in addition to our research efforts, has also taken management measures to reduce the impact of fisheries on sharks.”

Sonjica announced that South Africa is to terminate all pelagic shark fishing in its waters by the end of 2009. No new permits have been granted since 2005 and South Africa is currently in the final stage of phasing out the industry altogether.

There are seven companies operating with special permission and the ministry plans to give these fisheries rights in swordfish and tuna longline fishing only, with sharks as a bycatch.

The ministry has also reduced the number of right holders in the demersal, or bottom-dwelling, shark longline fishery to just six, and will monitor populations of the relevant species to determine whether further reductions are needed.

Dignitaries at the event were treated to a cage dive, where they were able to see the sleek creatures at close range in their own habitat. They also learned about shark tagging and the numerous ways in which tagging helps scientists gather valuable information about the movement and population of sharks.

Shark attraction

Cage diving with great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) is Gansbaai’s primary tourist attraction, and the town is viewed as a major great white hub. Whale watching is another tourist drawcard, with southern right whales often seen in the waters around the town.

Ecotourism contributes at least US$6.1-million (R50-million) every year to South Africa’s GDP. Sonjica added that proposals currently under consideration may soon see the shark, together with the whale, marketed as part of the big seven – that is, the big five plus the two marine mammals that bring so many visitors to South Africa’s shores.

Dyer Island, 8km off Gansbaai’s shore, is a nature reserve for marine birds and a well-known site for shark conservation efforts.

Protected species

South Africa has always led the way in shark conservation. In 1991 the country became the first ever to classify the great white shark as a protected species and to ban outright the killing of the magnificent creatures within 320km of its coastline.

South Africa was followed by Namibia, Maldives, Malta, the US, and Australia in introducing legislation to protect sharks. The great white is currently classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Other sharks under threat include the black shark, the Chilean angel shark, the dusky shark, the leopard shark and the great hammerhead. There are over 200 species of shark on the IUCN Red List of endangered animals.

A number of shark conservation programmes operate in South Africa, among them the White Shark Trust in the Dyer Island area, the White Sharks Projects based in Kleinbaai, south of Gansbaai, and Oceans Research based in Mossel Bay.

The Natal Sharks Board has promoted the conservation of sharks for over 40 years. In mid-2008 the SOS Foundation (Save Our Seas) opened a shark research and education centre in Kalk Bay, south of Cape Town on the Cape peninsula.

National plan of action

The great white has gained an almost mythological reputation as a ruthless killer, a state of affairs perpetrated by the media, but the truth is that this predator does not specifically target humans.

Experts believe many of the attacks happen through sheer curiosity, with the shark biting the unfamiliar object in the water just to see what it is. In most cases the shark releases the victim immediately, and the majority of fatalities occur through subsequent loss of blood.

As predators, sharks also play a vital role in the balance of the marine ecosystem. However, the animals are threatened by wholesale slaughter of their numbers for shark fin soup, commercial longline fishing and the associated tragedy of bycatch, and habitat loss.

South Africa plans to publish its national plan of action for the conservation and management of sharks, based on the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation‘s 1977 international plan of action, later in 2009. The international document encourages countries to draft their own national plans and contribute to the worldwide effort to save the shark.

“This will place us as a world leader in shark conservation and management where we rightly belong,” said Sonjica, adding that strategies likely to be covered by the plan include research on sharks and shark attacks, marine protected areas and the protection of sharks within those areas, and collaboration with other countries in shark research.

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