Hooked on sharks

2014-05-12 00:00

WOW, what a way to celebrate Earth Day (April 22) and launch our new shark awareness campaign.

I’ve done some pretty extreme things for shark conservation but our latest campaign, in partnership with Walter Bernardis of African Watersports, who was the creative director of the campaign, the “Get hooked on conservation, ban drumlines”, campaign I guess is our most extreme. Not that I haven’t already stripped naked for sharks in our previous campaign, the anti-shark net “Catches anything, kills everything” campaign, but this shoot was way more challenging. It was challenging because of the open ocean conditions, plus being naked, having to pose kind of dead hanging from a large hook while holding my breath and hoping the 30-plus sharks were in place.

But we felt that extreme times require extreme measures: in light of the international outcry by conservationist and scientists against the culling of sharks in Western Australia using drumlines, we decided to turn the spotlight back home. Shark culling is not new in South Africa, the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board has been using shark nets and drumlines for decades — up to 600 sharks plus hundreds of other marine life, including dolphins and whales, are caught by these barbaric killing devices every year.

People from all over the world come to see our sharks and the loss of large sharks such as the tiger shark is having several negative impacts on the shark eco-tourism business in KwaZulu-Natal. This senseless slaughter of our marine life is perpetuated by public fear, a public who know no better. Through the campaign, we are raising public awareness and lobbying against the use of drumlines and shark nets in South Africa, and in Australia.

South Africa turned to culling sharks when between 1943 and 1951 there were seven fatal shark attacks. Tourism revenue was threatened and the KZN Sharks Board was “charged with the duty of approving, controlling and initiating measures for safeguarding bathers against shark attacks”. Its answer to safe bathing came from Australia where shark culling had already been in place since 1937.

Earlier this year, and following the death of seven people within a period of three years, the WA government led by Premier Collin Barnett, coined Cullin Barnett by conservationists, introduced shark kill zones off parts of the WA coast. Baited drumlines targeting tiger, bull or great white sharks bigger than three metres, have been deployed off Perth metropolitan beaches since January, followed by a similar roll-out in parts of the south-west. Sharks longer than three metres caught are shot dead, while smaller sharks are released, although many released sharks are severely wounded and also die.

This recent culling strategy hales from more than half-a-century ago when environmental awareness was lacking. It is not based on scientific evidence nor in the promotion of education and awareness, prerequisites of the 21st century if we have any hope of saving our planet. Political agendas, power, greed and ignorance drive this decision. The WA trial shark cull programme came to an end on April 30, but we are concerned that the WA government has made a submission to the federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt to continue the programme. It proposes to continue the shark kill zones using 72 baited drumlines between November and April each year, from November 2014 to April 2017.

So back in South Africa, apart from the fact that we participated in a shark rally against the culling in March, we believe that if we have any hope of saving sharks, we need to reach the masses who have the power to help us win the battle. The challenge, however, is that they mostly fear and loathe sharks, but by using the very mediums, imagery and videos, and the channels that dominate society, social media, and via our powerful imagery, we are promoting a connection between humans and sharks, especially through my own relationship with them. In so doing, we hope it encourages people to see beyond their fear of sharks to seeing the beauty and fragility of sharks, and thus inspire them to help us save them.

Studying the KZN Sharks Board 2012 annual report, I was astounded to see that these long-entrenched culling devices cost millions in taxpayers’ money to maintain. In that year, it received R41,3 million from a government grant and a further R19,6 million from local municipalities. Most of the money received by KZN Sharks Board goes into the shark-fishing component of its business, while comparatively little goes to education, awareness and scientific research.

Over 10 years ago, it was researching alternative beach-safety devices to the shark nets and drumlines, but gave me insufficient funding as the reason for it having gone nowhere slowly. It is still testing devices, with many more years of research before it gets any conclusive answers needed to satisfy the removal of the nets and drumlines. Comparatively AfriOceans, one of the most established marine-focused conservation organisations in the country, which I founded in 2003, works tirelessly to save sharks and other marine life with a budget of less than half of the KZN Sharks Board’s fuel and oil budget of R2 million for the year, used no doubt by its boats that set and maintain the nets and lines.

Our government’s priorities are horribly flawed. It needs to provide exorbitant amounts of money for the killing of marine life, supposedly in order to save a few human lives, but does not grant us any funding for the work we do in saving the environment upon which all of its citizens’ lives depend.

In addition, the KZN Sharks Board calls its public dissecting of the sharks it has drowned in its nets and on its hooks, education. We find this appalling, considering that public dissections of the many dolphins drowned every year would result in an outcry. This money-making public performance thus perpetuates the belief that the life of a shark is worth less than that of other marine life. What kind of education is that? But when its very existence is founded on fear of sharks, replacing fear of sharks with awe and wonder would be like shooting itself in the foot, putting it out of business.

The ocean is the domain of the sharks and we are merely guests in their world. We have no right because a few of us get killed by sharks annually to start suffocating and shooting sharks to death. It’s like visiting another country where a few fellow South African tourists have been killed and then seeking revenge by shooting innocent people. It’s called murder.

I’ve been diving with sharks for over 15 years now and it’s one of my greatest joys. I appreciate that when diving with sharks that there is a very small risk of being bitten, but much smaller than being hijacked in my car late a night. I do not propose that anyone should go out and try the same, strip naked and jump into a ocean of sharks, and I have also never denied that sharks occasionally bite or kill people, but putting shark bites into perspective (on average fewer than 10 people are killed by sharks worldwide per annum), and changing the negative perception that people have of sharks is what I aim to achieve through my efforts. This campaign’s video production on YouTube reveals the very thing we promote: sharks are not monster man-eaters, if they were I would not be here anymore — not whole anyway.

We are living in critical environmental times when our oceans are increasingly under pressure from challenges and threats such as overfishing, habitat, and biodiversity loss, climate change and ocean acidification. This is cause of great concern for every individual on Earth because our oceans are our life support system, the blue heart of our planet: they provide most of the oxygen we breathe, most of the fresh water that we drink, and protein and medicine to billions of people. Our sharks play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of the marine ecosystems, and our oceans denuded of them will have severe repercussions. In simple terms, when our sharks die our oceans die, and when our oceans die, we die. We hence need our sharks alive, every single one of them. — Biznews.

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