Shark nets ‘protecting’ South Africa beaches are killing animals

Sharks, photo: Alex Rose on Unsplash
Sharks, photo: Alex Rose on Unsplash

“They’re basically curtains of death,” said shark diver Walter Bernardis about the nets that are hung in the ocean in South Africa near the beaches to protect people from sharks. “Everything that puts its head in that net dies.”

Conservationists say the nets trap any large animal that swims too close to shore, making no distinction between sharks, dolphins, dugongs, sea turtles and whales.

In total, 37 beaches are lined with nets and baited drum lines, spread over more than 300 kilometers (190 miles) north and south of Durban. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the beaches attracted millions of visitors each year.

At least 400 sharks suffocate each year after being trapped too long by nets and baited hooks, the publically-funded KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) sharks board said.

Around 50 of these are species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), such as the great white and the hammerhead.

Shark diver and guide Gary Snodgrass was forced to change the name of one of his tours a few years ago because sightings of certain species had become rare.

“We used to call it a tiger shark dive,” Snodgrass explained to AFP. “We can’t call it a tiger shark dive any more because we’re seeing them so seldom… they have decreased in number dramatically.”

Global shark populations are threatened by habitat destruction, overfishing and the lucrative shark fin trade.

Humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually, according to scientific findings published in 2013. Still, there is little public sympathy for creatures associated with mean gaping jaws and razor-sharp teeth.

But scientists and conservationists stress the animals are important for the ecosystem and key to regulating marine populations.

They also note that shark barriers are barely effective, especially against large species.

Divers have noticed that most animals can swim under the mesh, which is only six meters deep, and often get stuck on their way back from the shoreline, rather than on the way in.

Nets and drum lines give swimmers a “false” sense of security and signal “to people that sharks are dangerous”, said Jean Harris, head of South African conservation group Wild Oceans.

What needs to change, she added, is “people’s minds”.

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