There is blood on my hands again. And this time, it is thanks to an archaic fishing technique called Shark Nets.
In this day and age, with all we know about sharks – including their dwindling numbers, their critical role in our ecosystem, their behavior, and the infinitesimal risk they pose to us – it is absolutely appalling that shark nets exist. Shark Nets are a crime against our oceans and our sharks, and they absolutely must be removed.
We spend our lives fighting to save sharks and their thoughtless and purposeless deaths are incredibly disheartening – especially in a country known for shark conservation. In the last month, I know of and have been witness in some cases to 10 such deaths – all tiger sharks – here in Aliwal Shoal, South Africa.
It was the last death that spurred me into desperate action, as I simply couldn’t sit by anymore and watch as our precious Tiger Sharks were being pulled in one by one, day after day, strangled to death. While the team on the ground here (a powerful group of passionate advocates that will remain nameless at this point) had already launched an anti-net campaign, I was, at this point, busy staying in the background and gathering intelligence – interviewing fisherman and dive operators, swimming the nets daily, even visiting Natal Sharks Board headquarters. Already, I knew enough to make my stomach turn – but little did I know, it would get much worse.
The day prior, I had received information that two Tigers – both almost 3 meters – had been caught and killed in the Nets and the death toll was at 8. Since I have been diving in Aliwal for two months and had only seen a single Tiger Shark, my blood boiled to think the nets had killed 800% more sharks than I had seen in that same period. My informant also saw Natal Sharks Board intentionally hide the Tiger Sharks underneath life vests on their boat hoping to avoid any further bad press.
You see, Natal Sharks Board has to hide the truth of the nets, keeping the deaths away from public eye to ensure that popular opinion supporting the nets won’t sway when people witness the true, grisly outcome of the nets - dead dolphins, turtles, and sharks that hardly seem threatening. Just pathetically sad and heart wrenching. Not the stuff our nightmares are made of, the deeply seeded fear Natal Sharks Board draws upon to justify their existence.
They are so desperate to keep their nasty secret, Natal Sharks Board operates in the shadows, removing their kill early in the morning before anyone can see and hiding victims on their boats far from prying eyes, quickly whisking the casualties away to headquarters. Worse, they even abandon their dead catch at sea – to avoid having to report the growing death toll. – only days prior a dead, 3 meter tiger shark with gill net wounds had been found by a fisherman on the Shoal after another fisherman witnessed a large object being thrown from a Sharks’ Board boat. The Sharks’ Board deceit is not without reason – as I am quite certain if the casual observer began learning about all of the destruction in an already fragile environment, Natal Sharks Board would lose ground fast.
And we were about to prove that, firsthand, when I received a call that another Tiger Shark was trapped in the Nets. I raced to the beach hoping to get out there and rescue the shark. By the time I arrived, another passionate shark lover and team member, Steve Benjamin, had attempted to rescue the shark by cutting her out of the net, but she was already dead. He also had called Sharks Board as is the protocol– who arrived at the same time I did. However, the Sharks Board boat refused to take the shark onto their boat regardless of protocol or constant pleas from Steve to take the Shark. Steve, confused, was not going to leave the shark at sea, so he told me to get ready - he had to bring the shark ashore then re-launch to return to work. Steve is a skipper for Blue Wilderness, run by Mark and Gail Addison – some of the best friends the sharks of South Africa have.
Paul grabbed his camera, as I raced down to the beach to help Steve land. As soon as he approached I saw the two-meter beautiful Tiger Shark lying stiffly on the side of the boat and the anger welled up inside me. Here was a shark no older than a year or two killed by ignorance at a time when her population was already greatly threatened.
Waves broke over me as I tried to wrestle the shark to the beach while holding back the tears welling up inside. I couldn’t help but recall my days at Tiger Beach surrounded by Begonia and Mini-T – sharks just like her. Her rough, lifeless skin scraped my arms and legs raw as I strained to keep her from floating out to sea. No one would help me. While she was a small tiger, she was still quite heavy and I battled to dig my feet deep into the sand with the pouring rain only complicating matters. Mother Nature was weeping no doubt. Finally, another kind Blue Wilderness team member showed up, and together, with a winch, we dragged the shark to higher ground.
There she lay on the sand, a perfect Tiger Shark specimen, her eyes sunken, blood running from her orifices. My fingers traced the tell-tale marks seared into her head – gill nets had strangled her and suffocated to death. Opening her mouth, I saw her small teeth were no bigger than my fingernails and I knew she was too young to have learned the avoidance techniques many older sharks have learned. Ironically, over 40% of sharks are caught on the reverse sides of the nets meaning they have avoided them on the way in, as the nets are not truly effective barriers. And, many of the sharks caught are juveniles – barely old enough to be a threat to squid, let alone bathers on the beach.
Why had another shark been killed here?
I spun around and saw, as I usually do, only the occasional fisherman, person walking on the beach or boater. This area was a launch site for boaters and dive operators – and not a beach that swimmers and bathers used. Yet a net was installed here anyway, keeping the sand and driftwood safe, I suppose.
I spent the next hour fighting with the Sharks Board as I begged for them to take their shark. The shark they killed. They refused. Someone at headquarters had unwittingly instructed them not to touch the shark – though this public display was the exact thing they try and avoid. Seizing the opportunity, I began educating the large crowd that formed about tiger sharks, the nets, and how this the poor little shark had died. As soon as beach goers happened upon the beautiful shark, there was disgust, outrage, frustration and sadness. Never fear. This was the first time they were able to see the results of the nets – seemingly sterile and non-threatening, or so the Sharks Board would have you believe. And instantly, each reached a common consensus: the nets must go. Only one lone fisherman opposed, screaming that this was my fault (many people, and typically fisherman, ignorantly accuse shark divers of killing sharks by interacting with them with bait and thus, making them more apt to attack people) and that the beach needed protection from me and these sharks. “When was the last shark attack on this beach?” I screamed back, furious. He could answer because to date, and well before the nets, there have been NO shark attacks here. Not a single one – bait or no bait.
It wasn’t until the other fisherman arrived, landing their boats after a day at sea that my sadness and anger turned to desperation. They marched up to the shark and started coldly inspecting her fins and jaws – kicking her belly. I knew what they were going to do and I started yelling “You are not taking this shark. Not her fins and not her jaws. You will not touch her.” There were many of them and I began fearing the worst. This magnificent creature was ruthlessly murdered, Sharks Board refused to take any responsibility, and now, the opportunistic fisherman were going to cut her up to take her valuable fins and jaws. “Are you really going to let them do this? The blood is on your conscious.” I screamed at the Sharks Board crew while trying to drag her to safety and fend off the fisherman.
Someone at headquarters finally wised up and realized that what was happening was not doing them any favors and gave the order to remove the shark – just in time. This was the first time they had experienced such a blatant display of anti-nets sentiment to my knowledge, and it took a foreigner and a some passionate, and bold folks from a Tiger Shark dive operation, Blue Wilderness, to do it. This was long overdue – and it was time for someone to stand up against the nets in a real way.
Ironically, I was later informed that the rumors were flying : not only had I reportedly killed the shark to get publicity but that I was also under investigation by Marine Coastal Management for killing a protected animal. And, that I (not to mention the whole team) have been labeled as a vigilante and I better watch my back.
The politics of sharks in South Africa - not unlike everywhere else - are completely disheartening – nor will I fall victim to fear mongering and intimidation. Sadly, many of the rumors originated from individuals who are supposed to care about sharks – reportedly other Dive Operators and Shark NGO’s based here in South Africa. I guess they care more about getting into the limelight than making sure no more sharks are killed.
But, we are above politics and care about one thing - and it isn't our egos. So best find a new source of income, Natal Sharks Board, because the people of South Africa and the world are going to choose live sharks over dead ones.