Shark Attack: shifting hearts and minds in South Africa on the urgent need to protect sharks and rays.

Author: Dr Jean Harris, WILDOCEANS (a programme of the WILDTRUST) Executive Director

South Africa is a country rightly recognised for its rich ocean culture. It has amazingly rich marine biodiversity, is a surfing and diving mecca, and has productive fisheries. It is also a country that undoubtedly struggles with negative perceptions about sharks in its waters. ‘Shark Attack’ is a new campaign, led by the dynamic WILDOCEANS communications team and primarily funded by SCF, that aims to shift public attitudes once and for all, as part of a concerted bid to win greater protections for key shark species under increasing threats from a range of impacts. 

South Africa is a global hotspot for shark and ray diversity (204 species in our waters), with an exceptionally high number of species known only in its waters – known as ‘endemics’ (69), many of which are threatened with extinction. Recent and emerging threats within South Africa, and in the African region, have resulted in dramatic declines in the abundance of sharks and rays over the past decade. 

Although South Africa subscribes to international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES), and actively manages its legal shark fisheries, there is insufficient knowledge about the status of most species and inadequate knowledge and capacity for effective implementation and enforcement of regulations. The 3-year Shark Attack campaign aims to address these issues, including knowledge improvement, increased legal protections, support and training for effective implementation of conservation measures.

“Approximately 100 species of sharks and rays are impacted by fisheries in South African waters”

Approximately 100 species of sharks and rays are impacted by fisheries in South African waters, including recreational fishing, commercial longline and trawl fisheries and emerging small-scale fisheries. There have also been continued incidents of targeted illegal fishing and shark finning, i.e. cutting the fins off sharks at sea and discarding the remaining shark to die.  

South Africa’s drive to “unlock an ocean economy”, focusing on oil and gas exploration, sea-bed mining, marine infrastructure development, aquaculture and tourism, brings additional stressors. These include disturbance and destruction of critical shark habitats such as feeding grounds, shelter and nursery or breeding areas.  

The scale of these activities is problematic for a coastline with many endemics, many with small distribution ranges (e.g. the endangered flapnose houndshark has been recorded in only five locations and has a geographic range of <1000 km). Climate change may also push species into narrower distribution ranges, decreasing carrying capacity and increasing vulnerability.  In addition, there is growing concern about the sub-lethal pressures such as poorly managed baited shark diving and caged shark diving tourism. 

“Misperceptions about the risks sharks pose to humans has led to culling and deployment of unselective gillnets for bather “safety”

All of these pressures are exacerbated by a lack of awareness by the public about the plight of shark and rays, and a generally negative public perception of sharks, fuelled by sensationalist media. Misperceptions about the risks sharks pose to humans has led to culling to “protect” people engaged in water sports and on-going deployment of unselective and deadly gillnets for bather “safety”. 

While many South Africans have become much more aware of the value and importance of the country’s extraordinarily rich natural diversity, much of the public is still unaware of the imperilled status of sharks in their country’s ocean. A survey carried out to more than 700 people by WILDOCEANS on attitudes to sharks in South Africa showed that media (films and sensationalised articles about shark attacks) is the key driver behind the public’s fear, but also that the more people learnt (and understood) about sharks, the less they feared them – and actually developed a healthy respect for them. A positive outcome from the survey was the fact that almost all 700 respondents agreed that our oceans NEED sharks.

“the provocatively-titled Shark Attack campaign plays on the false bad rap sharks generally have in South Africa as wanton killers.”

Enter the provocatively-titled Shark Attack campaign. Primarily funded by SCF, the campaign plays on the false bad rap sharks generally have in SA as wanton killers. The campaign is using sharp social media tools, an arresting website and strong youth engagement to encourage the wider South African public to understand and champion the species and become more aware of their threatened status. 

The campaign launched with a ‘teaser’ on Instagram and Twitter, featuring a sequence of pictures: a toaster, an aeroplane, a car. The sequence built daily, asking followers to guess what these things had to do with sharks. The answer: fatalities caused by planes, cars and toasters are many times greater than the average 5 annual deaths per year caused by shark attacks. 

The campaign makes eye-catching use of social media

The launch event made headlines with powerful testimony from South African Paralympian swimmer Achmat Hassiem, who lost a leg in a shark attack off the coast of Cape Town and who has become one of the country’s most famous advocates for shark conservation. As the campaign makes clear, it is time once and for all to forget the movie Jaws and stop seeing sharks as human predators. An estimated 100 million sharks a year are killed for their meat and/or fins globally, and more than 30% of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction. 

‘Ultimately, the campaign is part of a wider push by WILDOCEANS and its partners to protect more 30% of South Africa’s waters in line with scientific advice’ 

Ultimately, the campaign is part of a wider push by WILDOCEANS and its partners to protect more of South Africa’s waters, to give sharks and other marine species and ecosystems the chance to recover from over-exploitation, and build a resilient healthy ocean to better face the mounting threats of climate change. 

The SA government has been applauded for measures to protect 50,000 km2 or 5 percent of South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). But concerted action is needed to ensure it meets its commitment to protect 10% of its waters this year, and ultimately at least 30% by 2030, in line scientific information of the percentage needed in order to ensure the resilience and health of the planet we depend on. 

Given its magnificent ocean heritage, it is time for South Africa to step up action to ensure that the special places and essential habitats where imperilled sharks and rays feed and breed are included in sanctuaries in an expanded marine protected area network that meets these targets. This campaign is about changing the hearts and minds of the public and showing how they can make a difference and take action. It is also about showing decision-makers that this is both essential and achievable.