NMMU academic warns of ticking time bomb caused by angling at Bluewater Bay
Shark fishing close to the Bluewater Bay Beach bathing area is a “a ticking time bomb” and it is remarkable that an attack has not happened yet, NMMU marine biologist Prof Nadine Strydom warned yesterday.
Prof Nadine Strydom says she spoke recently to anglers fishing 150m away from the beach’s bathing area and they confirmed they were fishing for protected white sharks.
Anglers say just a fraction of their fraternity fish for sharks, that they do not purposely target great whites – which they are not legally allowed to land – and they try to stay away from bathing areas.
But Strydom says the “underground sport” of fishing for white sharks is common knowledge to researchers in the field.
The flurry of debate about sharks comes against the background of a recent shock report from an exhaustive Stellenbosch University study that reveals that there are only 353-522 great whites, “the kings of the ocean”, left along South Africa’s coastline.
Researcher Dr Sarah Andreotti said the figure was precipitously low and if the threats facing the species did not ease – including shark nets, poaching, pollution, habitat reduction and over-fishing of the fish they feed on – white sharks could become extinct.
Strydom said while the white shark fishing phenomenon was well known among her students, she encountered the issue directly when she spoke to the anglers at Bluewater Bay.
“They were happy to tell me they were fishing for white shark for a photo and release.”
Besides the white shark issue, the anglers she had spoken to were much too close to the bathing area, she said.
“We know sharks are attracted by any traces of blood or food. So when these guys cast or slide out these massive baits 150m away from bathers, like these guys were, I feel it is being reckless and bathers and lifeguards should be on the lookout for this happening.”
The situation at Bluewater Bay is exacerbated by the sewage in the area, Strydom said.
“The global pattern shows us that shark attacks often come where there is sewage in the water, and we are hemorraging sewage from places like the Swartkops Estuary right next to Bluewater Bay.
“The combination between the sewage and the shark fishing so close to the bathing zone is a ticking time bomb. It’s remarkable we have not had a shark attack yet.
“Many anglers are ethical and responsible but what these guys are doing is irresponsible.”
NMMU shark expert Dr Malcolm Smale said it was difficult to curb people deliberately fishing for great whites because it is not illegal to fish for other shark species and they can just say a white shark took their hook.
“The law says as soon as the angler realises he’s got a white shark on the line he must cut it loose. So the legislation relies on good will. Ideally, people should try to avoid fishing for sharks where they know white sharks are prevalent.”
Juvenile white sharks are prevalent in Algoa Bay relatively close to shore in the summer when they feed on blue rays and a variety of fish but these small sharks are harmless, he said.
While most sharks hauled onto the shore are released after a photograph is taken with the angler, a major study still needs to be done on the stress the shark incurs and how that affects its chances of survival, he said.
Shark fisherman Christo van Rensburg said it was impossible to avoid a great white if it wanted to take your hook.
“We might be fishing for a bronze whaler or gully shark when it happens. It is not something you try for. But when a great white does come on the line you know straight away because they are so powerful.
“Most times we never see them because we either cut them off like we’re supposed to or they break off themselves before we can do anything.”
He said he did not agree shark fishermen were attracting sharks to bathing areas unless they were chumming first to attract the sharks, which was not advisable.
“The guys like me anyway prefer to avoid the quarrel and rather go to more isolated places like Van Stadens and Maitlands,” he said.
Van Rensburg said he did not believe shark fishermen were impacting negatively on the survival of white sharks or any other shark species.
“What we do has zero effect. What our environment minister should do is visit the trawlers which come into our harbours and check their shark by-catch and how they are getting slaughtered and sold.”
Well-known Bay angler Lando Alcock said his observation from boat and microlight sightings was that the white shark population was actually increasing.
“We see them inshore much more than we used to, especially at Sardinia Bay.”
He said although he did not fish for sharks, the anglers that did had dwindled.
“Of 100 anglers probably only 10 or five will be fishing for sharks. It’s probably economics – the reel you need costs R5000 and the rod about the same, so it’s expensive.”
Andreotti and shark behaviour specialist “Sharkman” Michael Rutzen sailed up and down the coast collecting biopsies and taking 5000 photographs of dorsal fins to differentiate and then count individual sharks.
Her subsequent genetic analysis proved that “there is only one population… of 353-522 white sharks… and the same sharks are roaming the coastline.
“The chances for their survival are even worse than what we previously thought,” she said.
Andreotti told The Herald the apparent upswing in white shark numbers described by Alcock was because their distribution had changed as they pursued dwindling prey.
“Because there are more sightings does not mean more sharks. What could be happening is we have been over-fishing so the white shark distribution that was over a wide area is now concentrated in smaller areas where there still are fish for them to eat.”
She said recreational white shark fishing was not a threat to the species compared to licensed commercial shark fishing.
“A big part of their prey is other smaller sharks so we need to look at how much these guys are taking out.”
This issue was tabled at an Environment Department meeting in Cape Town in July so the government is working to address the matter but it demands more urgent attention, she said.