Shark cage diving is an adventure-seekers delight off the coast of South Africa - particularly in the Gansbaai area - but not this past week.
The activity not only serves as an eco-tourism offering but also acts as a crucial monitoring for a number of marine species that face ever-present threats, from environmental pressures to industrial fishing.
South Africa's Great White shark population has taken serious strain over the last few years - compounded by a pair of Killer Whales that specialise in hunting sharks for their livers.
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And as Great White sightings have become unpredictable, the smaller bronze whaler sharks - also known as copper sharks - have provided great viewing opportunities for tourists. However on Wednesday 19th February, shark cage diving tourists in Gansbaai were horrified when a fishing boat started catching bronze whaler sharks in full view of where they were busy observing the sharks.
In a statement released by Marine Dynamics, they confirmed the recent incident, one of many bronze shark killing that could present a "death knell for their shark Cage diving industry", they say.
In October 2018, the shark watch enthusiasts were very upset when a fisherman caught and killed a 100kg Copper shark next to where they were diving.
It was one of four “Bronzies” killed that morning, states the eco-tourism operator.
In an effort to prevent the complete implosion of the shark cage diving industry in Gansbaai, operators in the area have resorted to a number of measures to preserve the billion-rand, eco-tourism industry that employs an estimated 250 people, and indirectly supports more than 1 600 dependents - from proposing a propose a small exclusion zone for the fishing of bronze whaler sharks, to trying to compensate the fishermen in order to ensure the survival of the species.
"Operators have paid out close to R900 000 over the last three years. The presence of the “Bronzies” has ensured the viability of the shark cage diving industry during a time when great white shark sightings are more infrequent due to a variety of reasons," says Marine Dynamics owner Wilfred Chivell.
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Because Bronze Whalers are not a protected species and because they mature late, they are only able to reproduce at around 20 years of age making them a vulnerable species. They are considered near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Great White Shark Protection Foundation (GWSPF), a collective group of tourist operators, conservationists and shark scientists in Kleinbaai realised that the potential conflict between the non-consumptive tourist industry and the commercial and recreational shark fisheries could mean the death knell for their industry.
It previously approached the then ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries, to propose a small exclusion zone for the fishing of bronze whaler sharks.
In a letter dated August 2019 Minister Barbara Creecy, the minister of the newly combined Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries indicated that she has instructed her department to commence with a multi-stakeholder meeting to discuss the proposal from GWSPF.
Operators were hopeful that a compromise solution would be found but this never happened. There are nine operators in the area and they host over 85 000 tourists annually.
Chivell says, "Whilst we fully understand that fishermen can legally catch bronze whaler sharks, the minimal amount that they stand to lose by not fishing in the same area where we take our guests, cannot compare to the loss of an entire eco-tourism industry."
"If the capture and killing of these sharks continue in this small and specific area in which we operate, it will lead to companies closing and people losing their jobs.”
The fishermen have argued that the shark demersal longliners off the South Africa coastline are depleting the stocks and in turn affecting their livelihood. Shark operators agree that these longliners are impacting the entire ecosystem.
“Our companies invest millions in infrastructure and marketing that benefits the entire tourism industry in the Western Cape. We know that travellers base their decision on where to stay on the activities available in an area. Shark cage diving is one of those key activities,” says Chivell.
“The government is spending millions on Operation Phakisa to develop the ocean economy. Shark cage diving and boat-based whale watching are both non-consumptive industries. It is sad to think that we are sacrificing a billion-rand industry that plays a major role in employment and development in a small coastal town.
“We want the Minister to declare an emergency exclusion zone before the stakeholder meeting is arranged so that we can prevent any further losses.”
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