Are Fish and Chips Killing Great White Sharks? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Cape Town has gone from being a great white hot spot to almost zero sightings. Australian diets might be to blame.

By Nick Dall

  • Cape Town’s False Bay used to be the place to see great white sharks. Now there almost no sightings.
  • Experts fear the increased fishing of smaller sharks, which the great whites feed on, for the Australian market might be to blame.

By far the highlight of Dr. Leonardo Guida’s trip to South Africa in 2014 was going cage diving with great white sharks in Cape Town’s False Bay. “There was this four-and-a-half-meter female just circling the cage,” the shark scientist and senior campaigner at the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMSC) remembers. “In the whole 45 minutes we watched her, she only bared her teeth once.”

Imagine, then, Guida’s shock when Dr. Enrico Gennari, director of research at Oceans Research Institute in Mossel Bay, South Africa, contacted him in early 2019 to report that great white sharks had all but disappeared from False Bay — and that fish and chips eateries in his native Australia were the primary suspects.

Great White Shark breaching at Seal Island, False Bay, South Africa

A great white shark breaching in False Bay.

Source Chris Brunskill Ltd/Corbis via Getty

False Bay used to be the place to see great white sharks. Between 1996 and 2018, 10,500 predatory events — where sharks attack smaller sea creatures — were recorded there. In 2019, not a single such attack was documented. An industry that usually brings in $60 million a year and employs 1,000 people is on the brink of collapse. Early theories attributed the sharks’ disappearance to the arrival of two shark-hunting orcas in Gansbaai, approximately 100 miles east of Cape Town. While government scientists continue to blame the orcas, many independent researchers and ecotourism operators believe it has more to do with recent overfishing of the small shark species that form a major component of the great whites’ diet.

Imagine if all the lions disappeared from South Africa overnight and the government did nothing to stop it.

Chris Fallows, co-founder, Apex Shark Adventures

According to Gennari, the sharks’ decline began at the peak of catches of species including smoothhound and soupfin sharks by the Demersal Shark Longline (DSL) fishery. The meat is exported to Australia as “flake” — a budget protein source preferred by fish and chips shops. Australia first imported large quantities (24 tons) of South African shark meat in 2016–17, the same year that great white sightings in False Bay first dropped significantly. Two years later, when no great whites were spotted in False Bay, Australian imports of South African shark meat had almost quadrupled to more than 95 tons.

Despite campaigning by scientists, eco-tourism operators and members of the public, the South African government has done little to tackle the crisis, says Chris Fallows, co-founder of Apex Shark Adventures, who has been taking tourists to see the False Bay sharks for more than 25 years. “Imagine if all the lions disappeared from South Africa overnight and the government did nothing to stop it,” he says.

A takeaway serving of fish and chips , a classic Australian

Fish and chips, a favorite Australian beachside meal.

Source Craig Ferguson/LightRocket via Getty

The reasons behind the disappearance of such predators are always complex and multifaceted. Gennari, who has analyzed the data in Gansbaai and Mossel Bay, 240 miles east of Cape Town, where great white numbers have remained steady, says evidence exists that the orcas have caused sharks to stay away from Gansbaai for shorter periods, such as weeks or months at a time. The fact that the decline in great white numbers in False Bay began before the orcas started killing sharks in Gansbaai “is the first big indication that the orcas do not play a major role in False Bay,” he explains. This is backed up by Fallows’ documentation of great whites and orcas peacefully coexisting in False Bay on 42 occasions.

Besides, adds Gennari, “in Ecology 101 they teach you that a massive decline is almost always to do with a loss of food, not the arrival of a transient predator.”

Studies off Australia and South Africa — although not, the government argues, in the Western Cape — show that small shark species comprise at least 30 percent of great whites’ diet.

Gennari and Fallows say the DSL fishery — which employs around 250 people and generates less than $1 million a year — has significantly exceeded the government-recommended, albeit not legally binding, catch for smoothhounds every year since 2015. They claim to have evidence of DSL boats committing multiple permit violations, including killing endangered species and fishing in areas meant for protected species. A petition calling for an end to the fishery garnered more than 25,000 signatures and has resulted in minor concessions from the government. But much more is needed, Gennari and Fallows say.

The government sees it very differently. Dr. Charlene da Silva, a marine scientist specializing in sharks at the South African Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, acknowledges that the decline in great white sightings at ecotourism hot spots is “a major concern,” but, she says, an “increase in white shark sightings further along the East Coast … points to a shift in distribution,” rather than “a decline in overall population.” When it comes to the DSL fishery, she says, the catch per unit effort (CPUE) — a measure of the abundance of the target species — in the Western Cape has “remained relatively stable over the last 12 years. If there was a link, why did the white sharks not disappear over a decade ago?”

Gennari contends that the increase in great white numbers farther along the East Coast — where he follows them as part of his day job — does not correspond with the decline to the west. And the CPUE, he says, is not an accurate measuring stick: The DSL’s total catch has spiked dramatically in the past five years. It also takes a few years for a decline in prey to affect predator populations.

The struggle to convince the South African government has led campaigners to reach out to Guida in Australia. The AMSC’s “Give Flake a Break” campaign is gaining traction. And there is hope that sometime in the next few years, Australian retailers will be obliged to state what species of seafood they are serving and where it comes from. At the moment, consumers have no way of knowing whether or not they’re eating cut-price South African shark meat — a practice that endangers South Africa’s marine ecosystem and the livelihood of Australian fishermen.

At times, scientists and eco-activists feel like they’re fighting a losing battle. “But if we don’t stand up and shout,” says Fallows, “we have no future.”

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