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Richard Peirce


Richard Peirce

I got back from South Africa in late February and landed to the usual British winter welcome of leaden skies and drizzle all the way from Heathrow to Cornwall.

One of my favourite dives in the world is a cowshark (sevengill) shark dive in False Bay, South Africa. We all know that sharks are among earths oldest inhabitants, but there's something about these sharks that makes them appear more prehistoric than most. My last dive with the Sevengills was on a brilliantly sunny day in flat calm conditions. The kelp waved gently in the currents and the sharks came to check us out, decided we were boring, swam off, then came back for another look. My impression was that we saw about seven or eight different sharks on the dive. If you like diving with sharks and want to do something a little different then I strongly recommend it.

On a less happy note my friends, Chris Fallows and
Lesley Rochat, made me aware of anglers in South Africa breaking the law by targeting great white sharks off certain beaches. In case you missed my article in ‘Diver’ here’s the gist of it.

In April 1991, great white sharks were granted protection by South Africa’s government, a move applauded by
those interested in marine conservation around the world. Cage-diving took off and great white sharks established themselves as an increasingly valuable eco-tourism asset for the Western Cape. The economic fortunes of the
small towns of Gansbaai and Kleinbaai were transformed. Yesterday’s fishermen became today’s cage-diving operators. The power of money turned a whole community into shark wardens.

This looks like a classic wildlife success story, but evidence is mounting that great whites are again being targeted
by trophy-hunters, and the authorities are making little or no attempt to enforce the protection granted twenty one years ago. Chris and Lesley told me that great whites are being caught by anglers fishing off the beach in False Bay, on the Hartenbos beaches in Mossel Bay, and in an area called the Points. “The guys know exactly where to expect the great whites, and they slide out very large baits specifically for them” said Fallows. “They’ll admit they’re trying to catch a great white, but if they become suspicious they’ll say they’re after bronze whalers.”

Neither Fallows nor Rochat believe that the authorities are acting effectively. “I contacted our Fisheries Department, and was asked not to do anything as the issue was under investigation and action would be taken.” said Rochat.

“I was told that if I let the cat out of the bag and publicised the issue, it could jeopardise the chances of catching the perpetrators.”

South Africa’s laws protecting great whites have been flouted before, when angling skippers were able to obtain permits to catch them for “research” purposes. Those caught breaking the law risked fines of 50,000 rand, and Fallows believes the law now allows for fines of up to 200,000 rand (more than £16,000).

The Department of Environmental Affairs confirmed to me that it was “aware of the issue and a prosecution in Mossel Bay is being considered”. It said that it had “been in contact with angling clubs advising on good practice and ensuring the law is understood, and is considering banning the use of the slider devices that enable large baits to be taken out long distances”.

Great white shark history may however show that their biggest challenge still lies ahead. Bantamsklip Farm is less than five miles across the water from Dyer island, and is home to what is arguably the world’s largest concentration of great whites. The site has been earmarked for the possible development of a massive 10,000 megawatt nuclear power station. Many scientists, conservationists and activists believe that this will have a significant negative impact on the shark sanctuary.

Despite being the most feared fish in the ocean, and despite its much vaunted protection in South Africa, the great white still clearly has more to fear from man than man does from sharks.

I spent April in Bahrain leading a shark research expedition for the Shark Conservation Society. This was during the Grand Prix and the widely reported civil unrest that was aimed at getting the race cancelled. Watching the news broadcasts was actually more worrying than being there. Burning tyres were a common occurrence, black flags festooned the Shia districts, and not being able to get to a shop one day due to a small riot probably saved me
a lot of money. I was headed for a marine supply shop and would undoubtedly have bought lots of kit I didn’t need! A demonstration at the British Embassy, as far as we could see, involved a Filipino woman walking up and down apparently fanning herself, a bored looking Indian in a baseball cap smoking a fag, and six or seven young Bahrainis waving placards in Arabic and looking as if they wished they were somewhere else. All true but I must stop being flippant because there is real suffering and conflict.

Although I did see an amusing side to the civil unrest, what was not amusing were the grim findings of the expedition. On previous expeditions in Kuwait in 2008 and Qatar in 2009/10 we had started to realise that shark populations in the Gulf are very seriously depleted. We noted an almost total absence of mature animals from the larger species 
like tiger sharks, great hammerheads, bull sharks and black tips, and year after year we have been seeing less sharks both in the fish markets and at sea. The Shark Conservation Society has been successful in helping to discover new species in the Gulf, confirming what shark species are present, and has also succeeded in getting laws passed protecting the great sawfish in Qatar and Bahrain. There’s little point in getting laws passed protecting animals if they have no viable habitats in which to live. That’s the real problem as the Gulf is rapidly becoming a very sick piece of water and could turn into a marine desert. Increased salination, pollution, overfishing, land reclamation (loss of intertidal areas), unchecked construction projects, sedimentation and many other examples of severe habitat degradation are all playing their part.

I hope this year to start a “Save the Gulf” campaign, but it will take time to get off the ground, and it may be too late even if we get the campaign going soon.

My books and DvDs can be bought in many shops and on Amazon and I need the money. Strangely being a wildlife conservation activist doesn’t pay much!

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