We, as 26,000 concerned citizens including scientists, conservationists, fishermen and ecotourism operators who have signed a Save Our Sharks petition, appreciate the engagement of this Minister in convening a Panel of government scientists and affiliated employees in response to the concerns expressed by the public and media.
The Minister’s initial speech created an air of cautious optimism, particularly in regards “…to implement harvesting strategies consistent with principle of biological sustainability and consistent with the precautionary approach”.
However, at the same time the reference of the Minister to sharks as “fishery resources” should be noted with extreme concern as the constant view of wildlife seen as nothing more than an exploitable commodity for harvesting is ethically questionable, especially in terms of global movements to increase biodiversity, protected areas and habitats. Conversely, the shark eco-tourism industry financially outperforms the fishing industry by almost 100 to 1, employing significantly more people than fisheries.
That statement of the Minister related to exploiting and harvesting is clearly evident when considering, for instance, the data presented by the convenor of the Panel, and primary DEFF shark scientist, Dr Da Silva, which showed the South Africa’s soupfin shark stock collapsed due to overfishing, and this species likely to be extinct in South Africa within 20-30 years. If furthermore, this species is listed as Critically Endangered globally by the IUCN Red List, we ask why this Panel did not find it alarming that this species remains as one of the main, permitted, target species of few fisheries in South Africa?
The plight of this species has long been known to this Panel, dating back to at least 2011, when the notion of a precautionary principle was first suggested, yet to this day fisheries have been allowed to exploit this species. Surely this is a glaring contradiction of both the Minister’s words of sustainable utilisation, the precautionary principle, and the United Nations sustainable fisheries mandate we are a signatory to?
As the Minister correctly said, while most sharks are caught as bycatch in South Africa, the Demersal Shark Longline (DSL) fishery is an exception, as this fishery specifically targets-to-exploit sharks. While bycatch is difficult to mitigate, targeted shark fisheries can and ought to be mitigated. We are pleased to learn that DSL vessels will have monitoring cameras on their boats, especially since DSL vessels have been documented (and reported to DEFF) illegally fishing for sharks inside marine protected areas, as well as exploiting prohibited species, such as the endangered smooth hammerhead shark. We are concerned, however, to learn that he fishery observer program is limited to ONLY one trip every three months. What is to stop illegal activities in all the other trips as has been previously documented?
In the effort to prevent illegal, unregulated and unreported activities, we are very supportive of the recommendation of the Panel, directed at the Minister, to make public the cancellation or suspension of fishing rights. This is a very critical point as regulations are meaningless without adequate compliance and enforcement. An example of this should be the active (but repeatedly postponed) court case against the DSL vessel, “The White Rose”.
- This vessel was caught in May 2019 illegally fishing for sharks inside the De Hoop Marine Protected Area, in broad daylight. Alarmingly, the illegal positioning of the vessel well inside the protected area was not identified by the Department’s Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) control room. The infringement was actually identified by public citizens who collected the evidence and reported the illegal activity to Police.
- However, even more concerning, has been the unpunished modus operandi. In fact the White Rose, even though with a pending court case, has been allowed to carry on fishing, and subsequently found again illegally fishing inside the same De Hoop MPA in June 2020. The owner of the vessel claimed this time that their VMS and AIS was not working, even though technical experts agree that a non-transmitting VMS and AIS is supposed to still keep at a minimum recording the positions of the vessel, even if not transmitting: why was that not checked? Again, this instance of repeated illegal shark fishing (with a pending case for the same infringement) was identified and reported by public citizens using a marine traffic app (again no sign of life by the DEFF’s VMS control room). Not surprisingly, the public is dissatisfied with the scenario and has lost faith in law enforcement, being forced to do the job of both Cape Nature and DEFF inspectors at their own risk and expense.
- Similarly, in February 2020, the public informed Dr Da Silva of the presence of retained protected species (i.e. smooth hammerhead sharks) on-board the White Rose (with video evidence). Dr Da Silva promptly informed DEFF inspectors at Mossel Bay (the landing port), which provided the inspectors with more than two days of lead time to meet the vessel at the landing port, inspect the catch, and document the illegal activity. Yet, allegedly, no inspector was there when the boat offloaded its catch. This event raises several major concerns, because one of the main permit conditions obliges the permit holder to offload its catch ONLY in the presence of a fishery inspector. So how was the offloading of its catches allowed without a fishery inspector? Why was there no inspector even after being notified of illegal activity? Or if there was even an inspector present, how did the inspector miss the hammerheads stored on-board? Dr Da Silva claimed that the landing of catches happened with no inspector present. Based on this, it is not unrealistic to assume that the catch data for the shark fishery available to DEFF’s scientists could underestimate real catches: like for instance the zero reported catches of smooth hammerheads by the DSL since 2016, despite clear photo documentation of smooth hammerheads being caught. DEFF’s management of this fishery is based exclusively around the data supplied by the fishing industry and the inspectors responsible for checking its catch; if this data is under-reported or inaccurate as the above scenario suggests, then should not the entire basis of the management of this fishery be questioned?
After considering all the above events (for which the public has proof, on top of many other events with only eye-witness evidence) and 8 virtual Panel meetings (up to 3.5 hours long) over 3 months, when tasked to evaluate the only coastal fishery targeting purely sharks, why did the Panel ONLY “requested information regarding existing criminal procedures for vessels in this fishery”? Why did they not provide direct recommendations, like for all the other issues posed to their attention?
Why not make a strong statement? Like for instance, if the court ruled against the White Rose, the Department should relook at the enforcement and compliance toward that fishery.
The panel also discussed the disappearance of white sharks from large parts of the Western Cape. Sadly this loss of white sharks has resulted in the demise of a previously large ecotourism industry, which had contributed more than R1 Billion Rand to South Africa’s GDP, attracting more than 100 000 tourists per annum and employing thousands of South Africans, directly and indirectly.
Dr Kock, the only scientist in the Panel with a research experience on white sharks, suggested that orcas, specifically two individuals known as “Port” and “Starboard”, were the only responsible cause for the disappearance of white sharks from False Bay and Gansbaai. Further, Dr Kock argued that the white sharks have now all relocated to the Eastern Cape. However, as Dr Kock stated, the evidences presented by the Panel are preliminary and correlative. Indeed, we believe other interpretations of the same data are justified, which would lead to very different conclusions. Specifically, the data presented does not rule out the possibility that overfishing of smaller shark species (important prey items for white sharks) has indirectly led to the disappearance of white sharks. This is detailed below in responses to several key points.
1. The decline of Great White sharks in False Bay and the associated decrease in natural predation on Cape fur seals began in 2014 (Hammerschlag et al. 2019, Scientific Reports).
Annual white shark predation rates on Cape fur seals over 18 years of monitoring at Seal Island in False Bay, South Africa. Data are mean ± standard error of white shark predations per hour, averaged across sampling days for each year. A significant change-point in the time-series is indicated with an arrow.
The white shark data Dr Kock presented for Gansbaai showed a similar decline, started around 2014.
The first recorded sightings of Port and Starboard in False Bay and in Gansbaai were in 2015 but the first confirmation of white shark killed was in 2017 (three years later).
2. As Dr Kock rightly pointed out, orcas displaced white sharks from the foraging site of Farallon Islands in California in 57 recorded occasions between 1987 and 2013. White sharks abruptly left the area in the presence of orcas, always returning within months, up to a maximum of almost a year. This return pattern of the great whites after orca predation was also noted from the Neptune islands in Australia and South Island in New Zealand. Indeed, to our knowledge, there are no examples in nature of a predator completely forfeiting a high yield foraging site in perpetuity simply because another predator passes through.
3. In contrast in False Bay for instance, white shark number began to gradually decline and then disappear. It has been two years since white sharks have been observed at Seal Island in False Bay, and similarly in Gansbaai.
This begs the following questions:
- Why are white sharks not coming back to False Bay and Gansbaai?
- Likewise, why have the Californian, Australian and New Zealand white sharks not shifted their distribution, permanently, to other areas like the South African conspecifics?
- Why do orcas not permanently displace sevengill sharks from False Bay given this species has been documented being killed by orcas in the False Bay?
- Why do orcas not permanently displace bronze whaler sharks from Gansbaai given this species has been documented being killed by orcas in Gansbaai?
4. The Panel presented historic catch data of soupfin sharks (declining since the 1930’s, and even more in the early 2000’s) to support their argument that a decline in small sharks was not linked to the disappearance of white sharks from False Bay. That said, when looking at the Department’s data of the other target species of the DSL, the smoothhound shark, the biggest increase in catches happened between 2006 and 2013, just prior to the observed decline in white sharks (smoothhound catch data below: figure part of the DEFF’s stock assessment of smoothhound sharks: da Silva, C., Winker, H., Parker, D. and Kerwath, S., 2019. Assessment of smoothhound shark Mustelus mustelus in South Africa.; adapted for the 2016-2019 period in https://sharkfreechips.com/ ):
5. Evidence to support a link between the gradual decline of important prey for white sharks (i.e. small sharks) and the gradual decline in white shark numbers, include:
- Hussey et al 2012 analysed stomach contents from 225 white sharks caught in the bather protection nets in KZN between 1978 and 2009. Dr Kock was surprised it did not show any presence of smoothhound or soupfin sharks and thus she concluded that study did not support the importance of these demersal shark species for white sharks. However, that study reported that sharks do represent an important diet component, in particular for the smaller size classes of white sharks. Furthermore, soupfin sharks have not been found in coastal KZN waters, at least since 1984 (ORI cooperative Fish Tagging Project), while smoothhound sharks have been caught in KZN with a rate of only 19 animal per year. When considering that unidentified sharks accounted for around 1/3 of the total stomach contents of smaller white sharks in Hussey’s study, is it possible to assume the inability to identify small shark species within a digested content, should not really be used to provide support for the lack of importance of these species in the white shark diet. That should be true, even more when Dr Kock et al. (2018) reported that “Fish and elasmobranch prey species have been confirmed to be more abundant along the inshore areas of False Bay during spring and summer, especially in the northern regions of False Bay when the water is warmer. Strandfontein in particular is a very well-known fishing location for various line-fish species e.g. kob (Argyrosomus spp.) and smooth hound sharks (Mustelus mustelus)….While the Cape fur seal population in False Bay seems to be stable, the same cannot be said for coastal fish populations and other shark populations in False Bay e.g. soupfin sharks (Galeorhinus galeus). It is possible that loss or changes in distribution of prey could impact the distribution, and spatial and temporal movements of white sharks in False Bay, in addition to inadvertently driving sharks to seek alternative prey sources”.
- The Panel argued that white sharks from the Western Cape have shifted to the Eastern Cape. The Panel also presented DSL catch data of small sharks, showing current catches are significantly higher in the Eastern Cape than the Western Cape. Given declines in small sharks from the Western Cape, it seems reasonable to believe that white sharks might have shifted eastward because small sharks still remain in high numbers there. Is it not possible that the very reason that both the demersal shark fishery and the bulk of the remaining great white shark population overlap in the Eastern Cape is for the same reason, the availability of small sharks?
When putting together all the time series available to the Panel, a striking sequence appears (the graphs are put in a rough relative timeline):
1. DEFF’s data on smoothound catches by the DSL peaked between 2007 and 2011 with catches up to 250 tonnes.
2. The Oceanographic Research Institute data on smoothhound sharks tagged in coastal South Africa since 1984 show a large decline in catches (and thus the coastal population) in the Western Cape around 2011, an initial increase in the Eastern Cape followed quickly by a similar decline, and practically a continuous absence from the KZN coastline.
3. The white shark decline from both False Bay and Gansbaai started in 2014.
4. White shark predations by orca documented only from 2018, when the white shark presence in both False Bay and Gansbaai had already started declining.
We do not deny, nor ever have, that orcas have had an abrupt, short to medium term, effect on the behavior of white sharks. However, it seems unlikely that a gradual decline, and subsequent continuous disappearance, of white sharks from their historical feeding grounds could be attributed to the presence of two vagrant orcas, especially considering the white shark declines began in 2014, whereas the orcas where only first documented killing white sharks in 2017. Is it not possible that the large increase in catches of small sharks, specifically smoothhound sharks, could also be considered, at least in part, for the decline of white sharks in light of the evidence? If this option was considered, then that would open room for intervention by the Department, because, conversely to orcas, fisheries are manageable and ought to be bound to the precautionary approach, as the Minister reiterated several times.
It was hypothesised by Andreotti et al (2016) that South Africa’s white shark population was already decreasing in 2012, long before the presence of Port and Starboard. That, coupled with a low genetic diversity, would make this population particularly vulnerable to the hypothesised decline of a primary prey. This should further strengthen the urgency of the call for action, one of which is to protect these smaller sharks as the primary prey along the South African coastline and put in any measure that would protect the survival of the white sharks that remain.
We therefore urge the Minister to reallocate the six DSL permits to a more sustainable, better managed and better enforced fishery, which would lead to no loss in jobs. We understand the importance of socio-economics for South Africa and that is why we have focused our attention to the DSL as the best, and easiest, step forward to ensure fisheries can still employ people while not surrendering the conservation of coastal shark species in South Africa. It is true that halting the DSL might not be a drastic and fully resolving change for soupfin sharks (as it contributes to “only” 20% of total catches), but it would be a game changer for other sharks like the smoothhound shark, as the DSL catches 5 times more than the other fisheries combined. And if those demersal sharks are a key component for white sharks, as we do believe and have argued for it above, the end of the DSL in coastal South Africa would also be a strategic move by the Department abiding to the precautionary approach: the likely easiest fix to the white shark problem. This could lead to the recovery also of a tourism industry worth 100 times that of the small extractive DSL fishery. Even if no change were to take place for the white sharks, the proposed actions would still be a positive, leading to the conservation and recovery of threatened, endangered and overfished species.
While orcas cannot be managed, the DSL fishery is easily under the government’s control. There is far more to lose by being wrong about the “orca theory,” than the “small shark theory.” In fact, focusing management on the latter can only have positive outcomes. Being wrong about the orcas as the only cause for the disappearance of white sharks, however, would jeopardize our environment, jobs, and South Africa’s reputation. An irresponsible choice, as South Africa’s coastal waters, once an iconic shark biodiversity hotspot, admired by the entire world, would become empty, with just a list of species no longer seen in our waters, dreamt of with regret by South Africa’s future generations.