Shark ring of steel

By Time of article published Feb 29, 2012

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JOHN YELD

Environment & Science Writer

THE CITY wants to deploy a 355m-long shark exclusion net at popular Fish Hoek beach on an experimental basis this summer.

The proposal will go to the local sub-council at its meeting this month, and if accepted will be a first for any beach in SA.

It comes after three shark attacks at Fish Hoek in the past eight years, two of which were fatal and the third resulting in severe injuries and loss of a limb.

There have also been several well-publicised “near misses” and at least three attacks on surf-skis or kayaks.

Great white shark sightings have risen dramatically in recent years and last October the Shark Spotters raised the alarm and called people from the water on 55 occasions.

The exclusion net, which a city report stresses is not a conventional shark net like those used at Durban – which kills sharks and other big marine creatures such as dolphins and even whales – will protect a small swimming area in the southern corner of the beach.

Made from nylon, the 44mm mesh net is the type used by trek-fishermen, but hung differently.

It will cover a triangular area bounded on the landward side by about 140m of beach and about 200m along the first part of Jagger’s Walk along the rocks towards Sunny Cove.

The net will be the same type used successfully at 32 beaches in Hong Kong since 1996, and that were recently also deployed in the Seychelles.

According to the city report, shark attacks have resulted in a loss of confidence by the public in Fish Hoek as a recreational amenity and the loss of a number of high-profile events, including the 2011 SA Lifesaving Championships which other clubs refused to attend because of the shark threat.

The nets will cost about R725 000 – there will be two, so that one can be cleaned while the other is in place – and will be removed during winter, which is peak whale season and when sharks tend to congregate around Seal Island.

They will also be removed before major south-easter blows and when the sea is particularly rough.

The Shark Spotters programme will remain, and the SA Whale Entanglement Network will have a special team on 24-hour standby.

Michael Schilperoort, Fish Hoek Lifesaving Club spokesman, said the exclusion area would be “in the corner, out of the south-easter and the run of the kelp”.

Crucially, it would provide enough space for two arenas for competitions for the beginner lifesavers, the Nippers, which would help recruitment which has been affected by the attacks. “For the first time in a long time, we don’t have a set of upcoming lifesavers.”

Initial plans for the net were discussed between the city and the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board in October, and thrashed out during a workshop in December attended by officials from the city, the sharks board, Table Mountain National Park (the bay is part of a Marine Protected Area managed by the park), Fish Hoek Lifesaving Club and the oceans and coasts branch of national Environmental Affairs.

The sharks board, which put up the nets in Hong Kong, will be retained as advisers and trainers.

The nets may be financed from the entry fee to the beach, or by declaring part of Fish Hoek as a special rating area.

The report says the trial will be done in terms of a research permit issued by the oceans and coasts branch, and that the nets will be removed at the end of summer while an assessment is done. If deemed successful, a formal application will be made in terms of the National Environmental Management Act (Nema). This will include full public participation.

“... There are a number of aspects with regards to the deployment of an exclusion net that will only be confirmed through the actual deployment, monitoring and assessment of a trial programme,” the report says.

Belinda Walker, mayoral committee member for economic, environmental and spatial planning, said she believed most Capetonians would understand the need “to find a middle way” that made the beach accessible but did not cause environmental damage.

“We really are trying to find the middle ground, and if Fish Hoek is successful maybe it can act as a model for other places.

“Yes, there has been an impact on Fish Hoek (from shark attacks) which is a pity because it was a very well-used beach. People have registered that there have been problems here and that it may be dangerous.

Gregg Oelofse of the city’s environmental resource management department, which is driving the proposal, said the city was committed to procedural steps, including obtaining the research permit and Nema approval. “This is not fait accompli by any means.”

He stressed that the 44mm net was not the same as a conventional big-mesh shark net.

“It’s an exclusion net, and they are fundamentally different. And a key issue is that, assuming we get the go ahead, this exclusion net will not become a permanent piece of infrastructure at Fish Hoek.

“It will be constantly taken out and then redeployed, and probably for not more than about 70 to 90 days a year, or perhaps a few more.

“But the net will be out of the water more than it will be in, we can say that with absolute certainty.”

Felicity Purchase, chairwoman of sub-council 19 that includes Fish Hoek, said: “I am very excited about the project. “It is a design solution which takes the needs of all users of the beach, including fisherman and Nippers, into account as well as the wellbeing of sharks and other marine life.”

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