IT’S A FRENZY
THE SHARK SCENARIO IS OUT OF HAND
When the most famous surfing shark incident happened before my eyes, as well as in front of the eyes of my whole family, one could say that it rattled the cage. Fanning was sitting exactly where I usually sit when I surf out at Supers, and to be honest, I haven’t bothered much ever since. Some surfers are seemingly unaffected, paddling out ten minutes after a sighting, while others, like myself, get intensely influenced by the presence of sharks.
This year it didn't make things any better when that grey boy came strutting through the line-up during the J-bay Open, although on the drone footage it was most definitely in cruise mode, going for a solitary meander up the point. It was still a startling moment for spectators, the surfers, and myself to witness such a thing.
I was chatting to Surfing Australia National Coach, Andy King, who had been taking Julian Wilson on a few free surfs when there was time, and Kingy described a little beach break around the corner from my house that he had been surfing with the world number three. It has a reputation of being one of the sharkiest spots around, with the local fisherman always coming in with shark stories. I told Kingy as such, calling him a bloody idiot or possibly words stronger than that.
“I felt them,” said Kingy. “When Jules got a wave and I was sitting out the back, I kinda sensed them. It would have been nice to have a few more guys out.”
“It’s crazy to surf out there,” I suggested. “Mate. We see so many of them all the time back home now. I’m definitely a little immune to the dangers,” reckoned Kingy. “Thing is, what are you going to do if more of ‘em start coming? What if this is the start of something” You can’t stop surfing now mate, it’s too late.”
“Yeah, but,” I admonished. “There are places with less sharks than that particular corner!”
“We’ve all been through a lot in our lives, and I reckon we might have to be a little bit more relaxed about it,” replied Kingy. “Many of us are lucky to be alive today. I’m lucky to be alive. We just got to be cool with it, and go surfing. I mean, don’t be stupid about it, and get out when it gets full sketchy, but still, go surfing when you can, mate.”
Which is one, very encouraging way of looking at it.
There is a war raging on all over the place though. Conservationists want to look after the sharks at the expense of human lives, shark cage divers want more of them, and want them to be aggressive and scary so that they can make piles of money off their highflying and opulent thrill-seeking clients, while surfers and other ocean-going people just want to see less of their people eaten alive.
Prolific The Australian newspaper journalist, Fred Pawle, who previously penned a few mighty surf articles, wrote in a recent article on the shark debacle that, “the shark debate, like most others these days, consists mostly of opinions based on assumptions or emotion. I can't exclude myself from that, but the claim that people kill 100 million sharks a year is a good example. I've heard "scientists" repeat this claim, but it's utter rubbish. A large chunk of that figure estimates the number of sharks killed in China, a country that doesn't have bureaucracies to record such statistics.”
There are many reasons believed to be behind the fact that shark interactions with humans are escalating on a daily basis. On a worldwide scale it can be said that a greater human population and one that is ever growing, will see more human activity in the oceans of the planet. Along with this, thirty years of protection will see a species, whether originally endangered or not, show numbers growth. These two factors, along with greater general surveillance facilities like drones and the ever-present iphone cameras, ensure that many incidents that would have gone by unseen or unrecorded in years past, are now beamed into our worlds within minutes of seeing them. As our technology expands and improves, so too will we be able to see more incidents and start to realise just how many of them are around us at all times.
The fact remains that they generally don't want to eat us or meet us, they just want to be able to cruise around and to find their seal breakfasts. They don’t want their seal breakfasts to be a soggy piece of carpet, deployed to fool them into making Youtube stars out them attacking and thinking it’s breakfast blubber.
Pawle, for one, finds the legislation behind the protection of the species galling, to put it mildly.
“Despite decades of expensive research, precious little is known about shark abundance and behaviour, which is why every time there is an attack we have the same futile debate,” says Pawle. “It gets worse. It turns out Australia was emphatically told the debate was ill informed in 2004, when a Japanese fishing official strongly objected to our successful application to increase worldwide protection of Great Whites. The official argued that the application was based on insufficient evidence and failed to consider the potential of increasing attacks on people.”
Those people being surfers, the oceangoers, families and we who partake in oceanrelated sports and past times.
Reunion Island is probably the most messed up surf and tourist destination on the planet right now. In 1989 I went AWOL from my two years conscription in the South African Defence Force, and ended up in Reunion, camping in the forest at St Leu. It was a place you could go and live, surf and slip into the relaxed and fun island life.
These days you can still go and live there – population 850K in 2016, climate tropical and humid, water temp never below 23˚C – but you cant go and live a surfing lifestyle there anymore.
Adrien Dubosc, an experienced local bodyboarder, was bitten in April of this year on the leg while in the water at Pointe au Sel. Despite CPR and rescue efforts on shore, Dubosc succumbed to his injuries and passed away.
That fatality marked the 23rd attack on Reunion Island since 2011 – the ninth fatal attack on the island – according to the International Shark Attack File.
No one knows for certain why the sharks arrived in such numbers on the west cost of Reunion, and why it happened so quickly. It possibly began with the creation of a marine reserve on the west coast in 2007 along a stretch where many of the prime waves are to be found. More sharks attracted by more fish. Others blame the increase on a 1999 ban on shark meat being sold. As a result, fishing for sharks has all but ended.
The reef sharks were apparently over fished as well, close to eradication in this locale, the side effect being that they used to predate on the bull shark pups, so now there are many more adult bull sharks. Either way, the shark numbers are out of whack and people are dying.
While all this is going on, the authorities are wringing their hands at the situation, sometimes putting in nets, and banning surfing so that they cannot be blamed, and at other times sending out drones and armed patrol boats, but the truth is that the only way to cut down the shark activity and attacks is to drastically cut down the numbers.
In Reunion it’s not going to happen. The conservationists are having none of it. I doubt many, if any, are surfers, yet they continue their somewhat flawed argument that surfers are in the sharks’ territory, and when the taxman comes we must cough up and pay their dues. It’s also known as ‘the bravery of being out of range’ theory.
The most appalling attack, that saw the death of 13-year-old surfer Elio Canestri, at a beach called Les Agriettes, was accompanied by unsubstantiated rumours that the shark net, that was supposed to keep the beach safe, had been tampered with and had a hole in it. Some people said that it was possible that shark conservationists were to blame. This was never proven. Let’s not forget, too, that 11x world champion Kelly Slater received death threats for suggesting there were too many sharks around Reunion Island. The backlash was so intense he issued a retraction. It is dichotomous. The island has lost what it’s biggest attractions were – the beautiful beaches, for swimming, for fishing, for surfing. Surf and beach tourism has been scuppered, hotels have closed down, surf shops are gone, surf schools eradicated. You cannot swim in the ocean, and you’re risking life if you swim in a lagoon.
Right now, the world over, there are very intelligent and informed people working on anti-shark devices. Much like the renewable energy projects – solar energy, wind energy, recycling, and upcycling – it is an industry segment that is showing incredible growth. The problem is that nothing has proven to be totally foolproof, and many have proven to have no value whatsoever and are just marking spoofs. The most famous antishark device was the one invented by the Natal Sharks Board in South Africa, but that technology was eventually sold and became Shark Shield.
On the Shark Shield website, the product is described as thus, “Shark Shield consists of two electrodes which, when both are submerged, emit a three-dimensional electronic field that surrounds the user. When a shark comes within a few meters of the Shark Shield, the strong electronic pulses emitted by the device cause the shark to experience muscle spasms. This does not harm the shark in any way, but merely causes it to experience a high level of discomfort. From testing, the closer the shark is to the Shark Shield field, the more spasms occur in the sharks’ snouts, which results in it turning away from the electronic field, thereby protecting the user.”
Is it effective though? It’s not a sure thing. Sometimes, in testing, the sharks do not seem too harassed by the device, while at other times they seem quite distressed. Still, the electronic field devices have a better record than the magnetic devices. There was a much-publicised account of a young surfer receiving such a device – an anti-shark magnetic bracelet – for Christmas from his mom. He headed out for a surf with the device a day or two after Christmas, and was immediately attacked by a shark, that bit him on his arm. It wasn't a serious attack, the 16-year old Floridian surfer, Zack Davis, received 42 stitches to the arm – but it put into perspective in inadequate research behind these devices, even if they are being sold on the open market.
The most established product the Shark Shield, but detractors say it’s too pricey, too cumbersome, and unreliable. Then there’s Noshark, a surf leash that sends out an electrical signal that is said to affect sharks’ sense organs. Meanwhile, a company called Shark Mitigation Systems makes a wetsuit with a “cryptic” pattern that it claims can “hide the wearer in the water column.” And Shark Shocker sells four-foot-long stickers that look like zebra stripes and are supposed to be recognised by animals through evolution to provide a warning to predators. There is also a break through study using compounds that only exist after aerobic decay of dead shark material. Known as ‘death signals’, apparently sharks will avoid the taste or smell, as an evolutionary cue. There are surf leashes that are striped to resemble poisonous sea snakes. There is also an anti-shark surfboard wax called Chillax in development that shows potential.
Every shark article every published these days however, immediately brings forth a plethora of screeching, indignant voices, from both sides of the debate. There is outrage; there are threats of violence, the wailing of voices, the gnashing of teeth and the braying of church organs. What about our dear children? What about the poor sharks? What about our cage diving profitability? What about our profile among the Greenies? We live in a world of radical hypocrisy.
The farmer heads out to get some supper by killing a chicken, or a young lamb, yet his cat and his two dogs are given beds by the heater.
A celebrity decries the eating of meat as cruelty to animals, and heralds a vegan lifestyle, all the while wearing impeccable patent-leather shoes on the red carpet.
Politicians sign for the protection of sharks, and subsequently for the banning of swimming in public places when they become over run by the predators, refusing to acknowledge consequences, refusing to accept debate.
Governments fight for the environment and the quelling of climate change, yet sign off nuclear builds like Hinkley.
Surfers read about disastrous happenings in their world of beaches and waves, yet few of us do anything about it except mutter under our breaths, or rant about it after a few jars at the pub.
How many of us actually join and get involved with a Surfrider Foundation, a Surfers Against Sewage, Save The Waves, Waves For Water? How many of us donate to a Shark Spotter type organisation, or how many of us get together and put up a shark emergency kit on our local beaches, or get together to do CPR courses and First Aid through our local surf clubs? We are a collective apathy.
According to Pawle, the two sides of this debate are easily characterised by their main priority: human life or animals. “Once you look at it this way," says Pawle, “you realise how chilling is the environmentalists' willingness to dismiss the human cost of shark conservation. Their inability to empathise with other people, some of whom are traumatised for life, while seemingly empathising with a dumb predator, is frightening.”
One of the biggest obstacle that is already firmly entrenched in the debate and shows now way of being extricated; is the belief that science can guide ethics. Both are worlds apart. Scientific results cannot decree whether it is morally right to kill a shark so that humans can swim without being eaten. The answer depends entirely on what you value.
It is not possible to save sharks and humans at the same time, and it is highly unlikely that technology is going to rectify the situation.
So either you value humans or you value sharks. It’s left or right, black or white. There is absolutely nothing in between.
As a surfer, you cannot stand back and watch, even if there are very few predators in your waters. The only ways surfers can have a say, whatever it is, if we have numbers behind. You are required to get involved.