Hawaii hosts summit on white sharks
Spotlight on cage-diving and conservation as world’s experts gather
GREAT white shark attacks and controversial cage-diving will come under the spotlight at an international white shark symposium in Hawaii next month.
Alison Kock, white shark scientist with the Save Our Seas Foundation, will be presenting two papers and is also on the organising committee.
Leading white shark researchers from around the world will discuss issues such as hotspots, modern threats, research ethics and conservation policies and will come up with a list of recommendations and advice to gover nments following attacks.
Kock said the last international conference dedicated to white sharks was held in the US in 1996.
“They came up with a ‘bible’ of white shark infor mation which is still used today. Our aim is to produce a comprehensive book containing the most recent scientific information.”
White sharks, which can live up to 60 years, are listed as Vulnerable to Extinction by the Inter national Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened species.
Shark attacks have made headlines in recent weeks after the attack at Fish Hoek beach which claimed the life of Zimbabwean tourist Lloyd Skinner last Tuesday.
Kock said the primary objective of the conference would be to educate decisionmakers by providing them with a concise summary of white shark biology and behaviour, and put shark attack risk in the proper perspective.
She will be presenting papers on Cape Town’s unique Shark Spotting programme and on information gathered from a number of “critter cameras” attached to several sharks in False Bay.
The shark-spotting programme was started in 2004, after an attack on teenager John Paul “JP” Andrew whose right leg was bitten off at Muizenberg beach. It gained momentum following the attack a few months later on Tyna Webb, 77, who was killed by a great white shark while swimming at Fish Hoek beach.
“There is no other programme like it in the world,” Kock said. “It’s not just about beach safety but also about edu- cation and awareness because the spotters keep detailed records of water users as well as dolphins and sharks.”
Kock will also present her findings on sharks at Seal Island in False Bay who have been fitted with “Crittercams”, small cameras, which are temporarily attached to the first dorsal fin of male and female sharks producing images of sharks interacting with their environment and hunting.
The cameras can be set for up to eight hours and afterwards are released and float to the surface where they can be picked up via a radio signal from up to 40km away.
Kock said there would also be discussions on cage-diving and eco-tourism.
Some critics claim there have been more attacks since cage-diving ventures starting operating and using chum to lure sharks to their boats.
But Kock said that while there did need to be more research on the matter, there were indications that sharks spent very little time around cage-diving boats because they didn’t get a reliable or significant amount of food.
“But it is crucial to ensure that sharks are not actively fed because that would affect behaviour.”
Kock, who has been studying white sharks full-time since 2003, worked as a guide on a cage-diving boat in False Bay in 1999 and 2000. It was one of the reasons she went back to university to study the animals.
“Every question I had was met with the same response – ‘don’t know’ – so I went back to varsity to do my masters.” She is currently doing her PhD.
Kock said South Africa was still regarded as a leader in white shark conservation although there had been a spate of cases where shore anglers were catching the sharks.
“But we probably have some of the best study sites in the world,” she said.
The International White Shark Symposium will be held in Honolulu from February 7-10.
APEX PREDATOR: A white shark measuring about 3.5m glides through the water off Dyer Island.
TRACKING: White shark scientist Alison Kock uses a VHF radio transmitter to locate a ‘Crittercam’, a small camera temporarily attached to the dorsal fins of sharks.