30 people from a diverse range of interest groups attended a meeting called by Mark Wiley in his capacity as WC chair of the Committee on Sport and Culture on Monday 24 Oct 2011.  The meeting was originally planned as a small group meeting of the tourism and recreation sector to informally explore whether the recent shark attack and the high shark presence resulting in closure of the beaches has had an impact (positive or negative) on business and on recreational use of Fish Hoek Beach. 

Why? 1  Tourism is the key economic driver and employer in the Far South.

           2  Fish Hoek is historically perceived to be a safe family beach.

           3  The FH Surf Life Saving Club is one of the premier SLS clubs in the country.

I attended with some trepidation anticipating a heated and polarized debate.  The reality was a considered discussion with the key points below, not in order of priority: 

False Bay and specifically Fish Hoek is world renown as the `home’ to both great white sharks as well as a number of World Champion surf skiers.   While sharks have always been here, there has been an increase in encounters with and `attacks’ on people in the past 11 years.  How to ensure the protection of the sharks as well as providing for a safe training area for new recruits to life saving and surf skiing.  Fish Hoek is one of the top surf life saving clubs in the country, but since the Sept 2011 shark attack, the numbers of new Nippers has dropped dramatically.  Fish Hoek is increasingly being perceived to be a risky venue for surf events and events that used to be hosted in Fish Hoek with spin-offs for business and tourism are now being hosted elsewhere. Dawid Mocke of the Paddle Center and Ski School also reported a dramatic reduction in the numbers of people signing up for training.

–  Public perception about the risk of a shark attack is higher than the actual risk, but it is impacting on local business.  It is not possible, at this stage, to determine the actual cost to local business of the negative impacts of fear of sharks at Fish Hoek.  Over 400 people have completed the Shark Survey being conducted by the Scenic South community website and the Fish Hoek Surf life Saving Club to assess the potential impact.  A low percentage of the respondents to date have been business people.  The survey will be run for a few more weeks, and the business community is encouraged to complete it so that their voice can be heard.  

Improved real time information about inshore shark activity is required to give water users the information they need to assess potential risk and to choose where to swim, surf, ski, dive etc.  Water users, Shark Spotters, surf and dive businesses, etc  need to communicate information about sharks to each other.  How to / what kind of system would enable current information about shark activity to be distributed and available to a wide range of water users. 

–  Not all economic impacts have been negative as some business sectors have benefitted from the shark sightings and associated publicity.  The video footage of the attack received over 1 Million hits and put Fish Hoek on the map – we need to turn that into a positive. Land based Shark Spotting is being promoted as an eco-tourism opportunity and shark dive ventures have recorded an increase in bookings.  A speaker suggested that the shark tour and cage operators were earning large amounts of money and that they should be sponsoring shark safety research. 

Safe swimming area for Fish Hoek is a priority to restore Fish Hoek as a family beach and to ensure that local  businesses and the water sports sector does not suffer as a result of the perceived high risks associated with sharks inshore in summer.  The point was made, that if an area was created in Fish Hoek which was risk free ito of sharks activity, this would have a knock on effect for other water sport users in terms of public perception.

–  System of deterring sharks or of a swimming exclusion area which did not harm sharks was agreed as  the option for False Bay.  Options including exclusion nets which formed a barrier but did not trap sharks and marine animals, small tidal pools, and electronic barriers were suggested but not discussed in detail.  

Public support and trust in the Shark Spotters has grown but the high visibility of great white sharks in Fish Hoek for days immediately after the shark attack on Michael Cohen and the world wide publicity of both ratcheted up the fear factor and dented the public’s confidence in existing safety measures.  High shark sightings occur every year around this time, but the shark attack gave them particular prominence. 

– Need to communicate with Shark Spotters about specific issues such was raised, such as prolonged flying of the red flag and using the shark siren to get swimmers to keep to shallow water. It was felt that these actions enhanced the perception of high risk.  Notwithstanding this, the Shark Spotters were acknowledged for their excellent contribution to the safety of people in the sea at Fish Hoek and Monwabisi was applauded for his professional response which contributed to M Cohen surviving the shark attack.

issues of public liability were given as reasons why the Shark Spotters appeared to be over cautious wrt flying the red flag and using the siren to get swimmers out of deep water.  The same criticism applies to the City granting limited use to the Fish Hoek Life Saving Club of their shark shields.  Apparently an electronic barrier system is being developed, but it is still 2 years away from being tested and approved.

In conclusion: three opinions stood out for me: 

Julian Hobbs speaking on behalf of the Fish Hoek Central Improvement District said: We cannot afford a disconnect between conservation and business people connected to the sea.  Australia is talking about culling sharks. In Fish Hoek we have a real opportunity to find other solutions and to show the world we can go another route.

Mike Schilperoort of the Fish Hoek Surf Lifesaving Club expressed how emotional the issue of sharks is and equally how stressful it is to have hundreds of kids training in the water and then to be alerted to the presence of a shark.  Parent confidence in the low risk of a shark attack is currently very low in spite of the shark shields, shark spotters and the rubber ducks.  An improved electronic system is a priority.  

Hanli Prinsloo, South African champion freediver championed the sharks of False Bay as she related how she used to swim through layers of sharks in her open water dives and that now she rarely sees any!!!  During her time at the World Open Water Championships in Greece in September many of the participants told her how inspired they were that South Africa was saving great white sharks.

Where to now:

Mark Wiley will be taking a proposal to the sub-council to request that Cape Town allocates funds for a research project to make False Bay & specifically Fish Hoek safer for beach users.  

Results of the Shark Survey will be posted on the Scenic South website within two weeks.

 A collection of anecdotal and historical information relating to sharks in False Bay will be collected by the Scenic South website.  Funding is being sourced to collate this information and to establish links that could improve understanding about the movements of, behaviour patterns and population size of sharks in False Bay.  I f you have info to share about shark encounters, or changes in False Bay that may have a bearing on sharks, please contact Kim@scenicsouth.co.za or add your comment below. 

Consideration is being given to setting up a working group with local representatives specifically to give priority to shark safety and awareness in Fish Hoek

 Notes by Kim Kruyshaar of the Scenic South Community Website