08 June 2005

Shark defenders rally to 'Jagged-Toothed One'

The aptly named "Jagged-Toothed One" will have strong scientific support at a meeting of the Shark Working Group on Tuesday, despite some knee-jerk reactions to Saturday's tragic death of a young spearfisherman at Miller's Point.

The group is meeting to discuss the attack by a White Shark - more commonly but inaccurately called the Great White Shark - on 22-year-old Matie student Henri Murray, whose body had still not been recovered on Monday afternoon.

At least one person has called for a bounty on sharks.

The group, chaired by a representative of the City of Cape Town, will include officials from the Marine and Coastal Management branch of the department of environmental affairs, which declared the White Shark a protected species in 1991, making South Africa the first country to do so.

Others in the group are from the National Sea Rescue Institute, the Surf Lifesaving Association, conservation groups, scientists, the fishing industry and the shark cage-diving industry.

One of those scheduled to attend was Len Compagno, a scientist who works at the Iziko Museums and who is acknowledged as one of the world's foremost shark experts.

The scientific name of the White Shark is Carcharodon carcharias, which translates as the "Jagged-Toothed One".

Compagno points out that humans are not the natural prey of the White Shark.

"If we were their normal prey, why aren't there more incidents of people being taken and eaten? They would start racking up a lot of victims," Compagno says.

So while White Sharks are certainly capable of taking humans and eating them for food, it's clear from the small number of attacks that they are not doing that, he says. "They are not roaming the beaches and taking people."

And there is therefore no justification in allowing this species to be hunted or to put in shark nets, he argues.

"I don't think that's justified - this animal has enough problems without people going in for vengeance hunting."

He points out that the White Shark has been around for much longer than humans - "probably 20-million years or more".

He notes there is no scientific substance to support claims that some sharks become "rogues" or "man-eaters" through repeat attacks.

"Evidence for this is so poor that it's really hard to prove."

The issue is bedevilled by the media, and particularly the film media, which constantly push the image of the White Shark as a "Jaws-type man-eater", he argues.

"Trying to give people a broad perspective is very hard. Basically this is about perspective. It (a shark attack) can be horrific if you make it so, but objectively it's no big deal."

Compagno said he appreciated that shark attacks were extremely traumatic for those involved, but said the number of incidents was low compared to other causes of death.

"I get more upset about traffic accidents."

In his recent book, Currents of Contrast, University of Cape Town marine biologist Thomas P Peschak refers to the White Shark as "the ultimate symbol of wildness".

Statistically, a beachgoer is more likely to be killed by a falling coconut on the way to the beach than being killed by a White Shark while swimming, he says.

"The fact is that humans do not constitute part of the White Shark's catholic diet."

But, despite their excellent eyesight and smell, these sharks do sometimes mistake people for their natural prey.

And because they are by nature territorial, this species may attack in self-defence while trying to defend their personal space from human intruders, Peschak says.

"Occasional 'man-biter' the Great White may be, but to label it a 'man-eater' is inaccurate and undeserved." - Environment Writer - jyeld@incape.co.za

The White shark (Carcharodon carcharias) occurs in seas all over the world, except in polar regions.

It is found from very shallow inshore water to the deep open ocean.

It is described as an "intelligent and inquisitive shark with highly complex social behaviour".

White sharks are warm-blooded, maintaining a constant body temperature even in very cold water.

They give birth to litters of two to 10 pups, which are between 110cm and 160cm when born. Mature males are between 3,5m and 4m and females between 4,5m and 5m, reaching a maximum length of 6m.

They are usually grey on top, with a fairly sharp dividing line between the white colour below, but old adults often become paler on top, giving rise to the "white" shark name.

This species is listed on the "Red List" of the World Conservation Union, with its official status as "vulnerable".

Source: www.iol.co.za


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