19 July 2005

Make safety for people and sharks the net result

By all means find ways to prevent shark attacks, as long as those ways dont involve killing thousands of sharks, dolphins, turtles and other marine life forms.

That's the stance of the Endangered Wildlife Trust and WWF, reacting in a joint statement to the proposed use of electronic shark deterrent barriers at beaches in the Peninsula, following recent shark attacks on surfers and swimmers.

Dr Deon Nel, manager of WWF's Marine Programme in South Africa, says the conservation organisation welcomes ways to curtail shark attacks, "with one major proviso: that they don't involve dealing a disproportionate blow to our rich and diverse marine ecosystems." Dr Nel says the proposed electronic shark deterrent barriers emit an electronic field that the sharks find discomforting, "seem, in principle, like a promising alternative to shark nets, which indiscriminately kill thousands of sharks, as well as turtles, dolphins and other marine species each year."

Dr Nel adds, "There have been concerns that sharks may be harmed by the electronic fields, but our view at this stage is that some temporary discomfort is still preferable to being killed in shark nets, as thousands are each year. Clearly there needs to be increased research into the effects of the electronic barriers, especially on a large scale, and ways found to mitigate these effects.

"Sharks face enough of a threat from humans as it is. Indiscriminate fishing techniques mean that thousands of sharks, dolphins and turtles are needlessly killed each year as so-called 'by-catch', where they're caught during fishing for other species. Illegal finning of sharks - where fishermen cut off sharks' fins and then throw the sharks back into the sea to die – is a further major problem."

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates that more than 100 million sharks are killed worldwide each year. This figure is even more alarming due to the fact that sharks breed very slowly.

On average, 100 bathers drown off South Africa's beaches each year, while on average one person dies after being bitten by a shark every second year. Annually, about six people die globally after being bitten by sharks.

Dr Nel says, "Ideally we'd like to see a reduction in the use of shark nets and would strongly oppose an expansion of their use to False Bay as has been suggested. Nets don't deter sharks, they just kill them. Shark nets are set to catch and kill sharks. Their purpose is to reduce the number of sharks in an area and thus reduce the chance of shark attack."

Describing shark nets as, "Indiscriminate killers of many forms of marine life including threatened species of turtles and dolphins," Dr Nel adds: "Of particular concern to us are the smaller inshore dolphins such as the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin and Heaviside's Dolphin - both small dolphins with small population sizes."

Shark nets were installed at bathing beaches off the then Natal coast in the late 1950s following a series of fatal shark attacks and, have since been operated by the then Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board, now known as the Natal Sharks Board. On average, 1000 sharks, 70 dolphins, 40 turtles and a multitude of other animals die in these shark nets every year, according to one estimate.

Dr Nel concludes: "We're privileged to live in a country that has oceans filled with a diversity of beautiful life forms. A healthy marine environment is one that includes top predators that play a pivotal role in the functioning of the ecosystem. This privilege comes with responsibilities, in terms of management, and certain risks for users. This is part of the package deal. The alternative is a bland, sterile, lifeless swimming pool.

"Sharks really have gotten short shrift: if cuddly animals like seal pups were being slaughtered at the rate sharks are killed, there would be an outcry. But while some people find sharks frightening, they're fascinating, diverse and generally shy – their rate of decline and their role in the oceans' ecosystems warrant increased conservation efforts."

For further information, contact:
Dr Deon Nel
Programme Manager: Marine, WWF-SA
Tel: +27 21 888 2835
E-mail: dnel@wwfsa.org.za


Cathryn Treasure
Marketing Manager, WWF South Africa
Millennia Park, 16 Stellentia Avenue, Stellenbosch, 7600
Private Bag X2, Die Boord, 7613
Tel: +27 21 888 2800
Email: ctreasure@wwfsa.org.za

Ms Yolan Friedmann
Conservation Manager, The Endangered Wildlife Trust
Tel: +27 11 486 1102
E-mail: yolanf@ewt.org.za

Issued by:
William Smook
Meropa Communications, Cape Town
Tel: +27 21 683-6464
E-mail: williams@meropa.co.za

Source: WWF South Africa


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