Great Whites Are Disappearing in Cape Town, the Former Shark Capital of the World

Allan I. Fleming

The Cape Peninsula dangles off the base of Africa like a tough fishhook, curling spherical from the frigid waters of the Atlantic Coastline into the broad expanse of False Bay.

This island-like geography has made a myriad of waves, from spitting beach breaks and massive-wave reefs to the beginners’ paradise of Muizenberg. Even with the abundance of setups, the peninsula is significantly a lot more renowned for its other marine sights.

Given that the early 2000s, False Bay has develop into a globe-renowned place for cage diving with great white sharks or to witness the amazing breaching phenomenon—where these sharks start themselves into the air though searching seals. Much less amazing is encountering a single of these leviathans though surfing, which also grew to become a significantly a lot more widespread event at the transform of the millennium.

Between 2010 and 2016, there were being 205 great white shark sightings on normal per year recorded by the Shark Spotters, an group established up particularly to check shark action close to the peninsula. Several scientific reports believed there were being, a lot more accurately, among 300-to-five hundred great white sharks within the bay, making it residence to a single of the densest concentrations of white sharks in the globe.

As a surfer who’d developed up in these waters, I couldn’t support but experience a little bit unsettled by data like this though investigating a tale about Cape Town’s shark phenomenon in 2015. But I also took solace in the reality that it was certainly an indicator of a wholesome ecosystem. Wonderful whites have been guarded in South African waters because 1991, and False Bay was teeming with life—not just great whites, but an abundance of other shark, fish and marine species.

Then in 2017, the variety of great white sightings recorded by the Shark Spotters plummeted to 57. In 2018, this figure dropped even more to just fifty. By 2019, there were being zero recorded sightings, mirrored by a complete absence of white sharks in cage diving encounters. In the space of three years, Cape Town’s apex predators had literally disappeared.

“What we have observed in just the earlier several years has been almost nothing limited of a calamitous crash of our great white shark inhabitants alongside the south and southwest Cape shoreline,” claims Chris Fallows, a globe-renowned cage diving operator and wildlife photographer based mostly in False Bay.

Whilst the thought of fewer white sharks may possibly make local surfers’ toes curl fewer in the lineup, the ecological implications could be dire. It is nicely identified that sharks play a critical function in protecting a stability in the ocean ecosystem and their disappearance, claims Fallows, may have catastrophic success.

It was to begin with speculated that the culprits could be a pair of orcas nicknamed Port and Starboard, who were being to start with noticed in False Bay in early 2015. Orcas are the only species identified to predate on great whites and other massive sharks. They usually hunt in pairs, attacking the pectoral fins and ripping the shark open up to take in its liver, which is prosperous in excess fat.

Between 2015 and 2017, a variety of sevengill and great white sharks washed up on shore with these telltale wounds in False Bay and Gansbaai, another great white shark hotspot even more east.

Dr. Alison Kock, a major shark scientist and marine biologist, theorized that a new sub-group of killer whale that particularly targets sharks could have moved nearer to shore as their offshore food stuff resources declined, switching the composition of the False Bay food stuff chain. As these new apex predators appeared a lot more often in the bay, the great whites had fled.

Fallows, nonetheless, is skeptical that killer whales are entirely to blame.

“During all encounters with orcas in False Bay and close to Seal Island, we in no way noticed a drop off in sightings of great whites,” he claims, citing considerable sets of details that tracks the existence of orcas in False Bay because 2009. “I am not saying that orca predation does not or has not had an result on white shark residency… (but) these consequences are limited to medium expression, as mirrored in other areas close to the globe wherever orca predation on great whites has in fact been witnessed.”

Alternatively, Fallows thinks it is the disappearance of more compact sharks that has had a ripple result all the way up the food stuff chain.

“In the late nineteen nineties, South African fisheries scientists gave out demersal shark longline permits,” explains Fallows. “This (variety of fishing) allows many thousand hooks to be established on the ocean flooring to focus on more compact sharks.”

Exclusively, clean-hound sharks and soupfin sharks, which congregate in dense shoals and were being historically considerable in False Bay.

In accordance to Fallows, it’s a widespread misunderstanding that South African great whites feed mostly on seals. Alternatively, more compact shark species and bony fish are their principal food stuff supply, making up sixty percent of their diet. These sharks were being fished intermittently close to False Bay at to start with, mostly to supplement other catches, right up until 2015.

“Suddenly, three demersal shark longline allow holders actually began fishing the resource really hard,” claims Fallows. “They uncovered how, wherever and when to focus on the clean-hound and soupfin sharks. Their catches soared as can be observed by the export details to Australia, wherever the sharks are offered for fish and chips. For the great white, this has been almost nothing limited of a dying blow.”

Frequently referred to as “flake” in Australia, clean-hound shark is typically applied in Australian fish and chips. A lot of shoppers really do not even know they are ingesting shark—according to Australian seafood labeling laws, only fresh and frozen fish demands to be recognized. After it is cooked, there is no lawful obligation to title the species and shark is identified as every thing from “flake” to “pearled fillet”, “boneless fillet” and even “monkfish”.

Australia has its possess clean-hound shark fishing business but it is sustainably managed with strict quotas and enforcement. In buy to satisfy the large excess desire for fish and chips, importers only began bringing in shark from South Africa,

wherever the fishery is poorly managed with very little regulation.

“For Australia, it is a double earn,” claims Fallows. “They are shielding their resource from overfishing by having nicely researched and nicely-enforced quotas. To make up the desire deficit, they import our sharks at a favorable trade rate. The damage staying finished on the other side of the ocean is unfamiliar to most folks in Australia, who are unwittingly ingesting our sharks in their fish and chips.”

Not like in Australia, there is no limit on the total allowable capture in South Africa. Given that 2011, the Division of Natural environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ (DEFF) possess scientists have said that these sharks are staying harvested at an unsustainable rate—almost three occasions the yearly recommended quota—and have manufactured urgent tips to limit the total allowable capture, but this has been consistently disregarded by administration and policy makers. To make matters worse, shark longliners have been documented fishing within South Africa’s flagship marine reserves—the equivalent of longline fishing on the Wonderful Barrier Reef. In 2019, DEFF scientists warned that clean-hound and soupfin shark populations were being in a state of collapse.

Recurring makes an attempt to get a comment from the Division went unanswered, but the science also echoes anecdotal evidence I had heard though chatting to local surfer Pierre de Villiers again in 2015.

De Villiers is not a scientist. His credentials have been gained via decades of surfing and diving the Cape reefs. Alongside with Peter Button, he pioneered Dungeons long prior to there were being boats with photographers that dropped you in the lineup. Back then your only solution was to lug your rhino chaser close to the towering Sentinel mountain and make the two hundred-meter paddle out via Shark Alley, a deep channel flanked on possibly side by a rocky seal colony wherever it was jokingly reported that white sharks would cling out like prospects at a drive-via.

A winner spearfisherman, De Villiers instructed me how, up right up until the early 2000s, the peninsula was teeming with clean-hound sharks.

“They applied to arrive close to Cape Level and into the bay in figures that were being mindboggling. You’d swim in excess of and you’d see a mass of grey matters beneath you. They look… terrifying right up until you realize they just can’t chunk you. But there were being hundreds of thousands of them. Fellas applied to get a lot more income for them than yellowtail… So they fished these sharks right up until they disappeared.”

Historic and current details bears out De Villiers’ long-held observations. Between 2014 and 2018, the total quantity of shark items exported from South Africa to Australia rocketed from close to eight,000 kilograms per year to nearly sixty,000 kilograms according to Website traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring community. The variety of clean-hound sharks killed by demersal longline fishing in 2018 by yourself was a staggering 30,112—all exported to Australia.

Fallows, and other professionals in South Africa and Australia, are now focusing their endeavours on raising consciousness close to the situation and striving to educate finish shoppers about the devastating effects the fishery is having via a marketing campaign identified as Shark Cost-free Chips—before it’s too late.

“It’s not astonishing that the great whites have long gone and will proceed to vanish even more up the coastline as their principal food stuff supply is fished to almost nothing,” claims Fallows. “In just 4 limited years we have observed enormous ecological variations that may in no way be equipped to be rectified, regrettably all for fish and chips.”

This article initially appeared on and was republished with permission.

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