South Africa Rethinks Use of Shark Nets

Leon Marshall
for National Geographic News
June 4, 2002

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For close to 40 years, South Africa's Natal Sharks Board (NSB) has been protecting swimmers against shark attacks. In the last several years, the agency has added protecting marine life, including sharks, to its mandate.

Miles of protective netting were installed at resorts along a 200-mile (320-kilometer) stretch of the KwaZulu Natal province's coastline after a series of shark attacks in the 1950s and 1960s. The netting protected tourists at the popular coastal resorts, but scientists discovered that a disturbing number of sharks—many of them harmless—stingrays, turtles, and dolphins were also being caught.

"There needs to be a balance between safeguarding tourists and limiting harm especially to non-targeted marine life," said Jeff Gaisford, spokesman for KZN Wildlife, the province's nature conservation and ecotourism authority.

To fulfill this dual mandate, the NSB has been exploring alternative protection measures, while slowly and selectively removing some of the netting. Three years into the program, NSB scientists are satisfied that this can be done without undue risk to bathers.

Shark Attacks

Durban, South Africa's most popular holiday city, installed nets in 1952 following a series of shark attacks, several of which were fatal. The city suffered no more serious attacks, but several netless resorts a short way off did. During one horrific period known as "Black December," five people died in shark attacks over a 107-day stretch, from Christmas 1957 to Easter 1958.

Several solutions were attempted by local authorities desperate to lure back panic-stricken holidaymakers. Unsightly enclosures built of wooden poles, wire, and netting were erected, only to be smashed by the rough surf. A South African Navy frigate dropped depth-charges in shark-infested waters. Only a few sharks were killed, and many more were attracted by the dead fish.

Finally, in 1964 the then-Natal (now KwaZulu Natal) provincial authority established the NSB to take charge of bather safety along its coastline. The NSB responded by installing nets at most major resorts.

Catching Sharks

The nets do not provide a physical barrier between sharks and bathers, said Sheldon Dudley, senior researcher at the Natal Sharks Board. Their function is to catch sharks, thereby keeping their numbers down in areas used by bathers.

Continued on Next Page >>


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