Some of those reading this article may have been lucky enough to dive with the tiger sharks of South Africa from the coastal towns of Umkomaas, Scottburgh or Shelly Beach. If you are one of those lucky few, you’ll know firsthand how awe-inspiring these sharks can be. You’ll also know how excited the dive operators in those three towns become when more than one or two tigers are seen on a single dive. Where in the past it was common to see seven, eight, or even nine tigers circling the bait drum, nowadays tiger sharks are scarce. There are many reasons for their decline, some of which affect the majority of the world’s shark populations, including overfishing, shark finning, indiscriminate commercial fishing methods and a desperate lack of protective legislation. But on South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast, tiger sharks (and indeed all sharks) face another, more specific threat — the shark nets that are strung like walls of death along 17 miles of the province’s coastline.
Intended to protect swimmers, KwaZulu-Natal’s shark nets do not in fact act as barriers preventing sharks from swimming inshore. Operated and maintained by the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, they do not entirely close off the mouth of the bays across which they are strung, and neither do they extend all the way from the surface to the seafloor. Instead, their purpose is to reduce potential shark attacks by catching and killing as many sharks as possible. In pursuit of this goal the nets are brutally effective; each year, they are responsible for as many as 700 shark deaths, a figure that includes many harmless shark species as well as the three ‘dangerous’ species that the nets target (the tiger, the bull and the great white). In addition to the hundreds of sharks killed annually, the nets also claim the lives of whales, seabirds, turtles, dolphins and rays. Instead of preventing sharks from approaching the province’s beaches — 40 percent of sharks caught in the nets are caught on their way back out to sea — the baited drumlines used in conjunction with them actually attract large sharks into inshore areas.
The number of sharks killed in the nets each year is unconscionable, as the dwindling numbers of tiger sharks seen on baited dives in the area prove. The nets cause massive environmental damage, not only because they put further pressure on already fragile shark populations, therefore threatening their future existence, but also in terms of the marine life caught and killed as collateral damage. To put that damage in perspective, the KwaZulu-Natal shark nets have been responsible for the deaths of 2,211 turtles, 8,448 rays and 2,310 dolphins in the last 30 years. The nets not only impact negatively on the marine environment, but on the South African economy as well. KwaZulu-Natal is famous for its shark diving opportunities, and every year divers flock here from all over the world to encounter some of the ocean’s top predators without the restrictions of a cage. The shark diving industries of Umkomaas, Scottburgh, Shelly Beach and Port St. Johns alone bring in over $1.7 million a year, and yet, how long can these businesses operate if the sharks they depend upon continue to die in the nets on such a large scale? Conversely, the nets cost South African taxpayers a staggering $5.3 million in annual maintenance fees.
Over the course of just two days in April 2012, 13 tiger sharks were caught in the nets at two KwaZulu-Natal beaches. Predictably in a time when the sight of more than one tiger shark on a baited dive is considered exciting, local divers, scientists and conservationists condemned this slaughter as a crippling loss to the local tiger population. Those two days served as a wake-up call for members of all water-user groups in the area. Making the captures even more abhorrent was that both Scottburgh and Park Rynie, the beaches where the sharks were caught, fall within the jurisdiction of the Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area. Within the MPA, five shark species (the tiger, the bull, the great white, the ragged-tooth and the whale shark) are legally protected and yet nets specifically targeting three of those species are allowed to exist within its boundaries. The hypocrisy of the tragedy was the catalyst for what happened shortly thereafter, a protest against the nets that became the first ever Paddle Out For Sharks.
The concept of the Paddle Out was borrowed from surf culture, wherein the friends and family of a dead surfer honor his or her memory by paddling their surfboards out to backline, forming a circle and casting wreaths and flowers onto the water. Surfers, conservationists, fishermen, scientists, divers, freedivers and many more ocean advocates united that year in their support of the region’s sharks. Dive boats and fishing boats met those surfers that paddled out from the shore on the backline of Scottburgh beach to pay their respects to the dead sharks, and to call for better management of sharks as a valuable resource in a show of solidarity against the Natal Sharks Board. Since 2012, the Paddle Out has grown exponentially. In 2013, the date of the event was changed to coincide with World Oceans Day on June 8th, and the concept spread beyond Scottburgh to include sister Paddle Outs in Port. St. Johns and Shelly Beach. Last year, the Paddle Out For Sharks went international, as Mozambique and Australia joined 12 South African towns and cities in commemorating all those sharks killed by archaic management methods and in calling for a more sustainable alternative to shark nets.
In 2013 and 2014, the theme and slogan for World Oceans Day was “Together we have the power to protect the ocean.” The Paddle Out For Sharks proves that statement to be true, showing how a grassroots protest in reaction to a single tragedy can grow into an international movement. The Paddle Out will be held again in 2015, and as its momentum grows, so to will its power to effect change.