A highly publicized study undertaken by environmental researchers, shark scientists and an ecotourism operation in South Africa has brought the plight of the ocean’s most famous shark, the “Great White,” to the fore.
Previously it was thought that over a thousand great white sharks were to be found along the South African coastline, widely regarded as the global hot spot for the species. In the latest study (see a summary and links below), the estimate is revised sharply down: 353-522 individuals remain, and moreover these sharks have the lowest genetic diversity of all white shark populations worldwide. South Africa’s great whites are in serious trouble.
Research Finding: The magnificent great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias L.) is one of the oldest shark lineages with an evolutionary origin dating back 14 million years, according to South Africa’s Stellenbosch University . “The numbers in South Africa are extremely low. If the situation stays the same … great white sharks are heading for possible extinction,” says Dr Sara Andreotti of the Department of Botany and Zoology and lead author of the study published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series. The findings are based on six years of fieldwork along the South African coastline, the largest field research study on the country’s great white sharks to date.
Considering that South Africa was the first country to protect these sharks, in 1991, and that it is the world’s ecotourism capital for observing this iconic species, the findings are deeply worrying.
If the case for this species needs to be one made on economic value, as sadly so much to do with nature is, then the white shark ecotourism industry is responsible for generating many millions of dollars in much needed foreign earnings for South Africa. And it is a major success story in terms of job creation and social upliftment in a country desperately in need of both.
You would think then that every effort would be made to protect the species – by every sector that benefits from its wellbeing. Sadly, however, this is not the case. Each year, many incidents of illegal great white shark sport-fishing are reported to fishery management offices, but to date only one case has ever been prosecuted, and that because of local scientists, researchers and conservationists not letting up on their efforts to bring the perpetrator to book.
Even more perplexing is that — despite everyone being aware of the value of protecting this species in our waters, its ancestral home — the same fisheries department continues to sanction the culling of as many as 60 of these highly threatened animals a year by another government-funded organization, the Natal Sharks Board, which makes it the world’s most effective great white shark killing machine.
Photograph by Chris Fallows/apexpredators.com
It gets worse. While many other countries are designating vast ocean tracts as shark-protected marine sanctuaries, in South Africa shark long-lining, both out in the open ocean and in-shore, continues to be legal. A brutal method involving the stringing of kilometers of baited hooks to catch other species of sharks for their fins and meat, long-lining is used extensively throughout South African waters; so it can hardly be surprising that great whites are inevitably caught as by-catch.
After working with great whites for a quarter of a century, in Gansbaai and False Bay, we have witnessed the decline in their numbers. In the early False Bay days, it was not unusual to see upwards of 20 great whites on a single morning’s excursion; nowadays, if we see 10 it is a great day. By world standards, the sighting of 10 great whites is a great day, of course, but in these South African waters it is nothing like what could be seen in former years.
Great Whites Have Individual “Personalities”
It’s been my privilege to not only have had a lifelong career of working with these sharks, I have come to recognize and know individual sharks by virtue of their unique “personalities”. It is truly heart-breaking to witness their disappearing; they have given me so many of my life’s highs.
The photograph alongside by Chris Fallows is from the most popular post on Ocean Views: Ten Photos of Great White Sharks to Take Your Breath Away
For many years now we have seen the same individual sharks season after season. We would watch them grow from inexperienced teenagers into fully fledged hunting machines as adult superpredators. Today our sightings are very different: We still see many of the same sharks over a few weeks, but seeing the same individual year after year is nothing like what it used to be.
The great white shark, an animal that has roamed the oceans almost unchanged for millions of years, an embodiment of predatory brilliance, may be vanishing from our shores. Those of us who fear the sharks and have never had the opportunity to get close enough to them to see what they are really about may argue “good riddance” — but for others, who have spent time in the company of the great fish, their disappearance will truly mean a more desolate ocean.
Like the tiger, the great white shark is one of those species that garners headlines. It has it’s own week on television, and it is the subject of so much research. Yet also like the tiger, it is slipping away. If we cannot save these iconic species, then what can we save?
As a shark ecotourism operator, naturalist and wildlife photographer, I am duty-bound to make sure that I treat these sharks with respect, to not only give our ecotourist guests a great time, but, more importantly, to have them leave our boat as ambassadors for these awesome predators. Shark researchers have a duty to make sure their research is not about their own self-advancement but rather for the animals’ wellbeing. It is the obligation of every fisher to take all possible steps to avoid catching these sharks, and if they do so accidentally, to release them with care.
Perhaps most importantly, it is our government’s responsibility to stop the issue of poorly researched shark long-lining permits and wholesale slaughter of great whites in “bather safety nets,” which it does in the hopes of creating and preserving a negligible amount of jobs for the short term.
If we lose the great white, we will have not only removed a perfect species of evolution from our planet; long-term we will have robbed South Africa of more lasting financial and socio-economic opportunities.
It is incumbent on everyone to give teeth to the word “protected.” Doing nothing will only result in the irrevocable extinction of one of Nature’s most astounding creations.
For nearly twenty years, South African Chris Fallows has been photographing marine wildlife. He is best known for his pioneering images of the famous flying great white sharks of Seal Island, False Bay. Chris and his wife Monique are wildlife naturalists and when they are not on the water they spend the rest of their time photographing and traveling to other wildlife destinations around the world.
The couple owns and operates Apex Shark Expeditions which specializes in photographic and cage diving expeditions to view great white sharks in False Bay, South Africa. Chris hopes that through his images and wildlife expeditions people will appreciate South Africa’s magnificent marine predators as much as their terrestrial counterparts.