FLASHBACK: Leon Bekker of George, seen in this photograph from March 2011, left, pleaded guilty to charges relating to catching protected great white sharks. His case has set a precedent that is likely to curb great white shark hunters.

Melanie Gosling

Environment Writer

IN 1991 South Africa outlawed the killing of great white sharks, but it took 22 years before anyone was convicted of killing one of these protected marine creatures.

For years anglers who landed the big sharks had simply argued that they had not been targeting great whites. Law enforcement officials believed it would be difficult to prove in court that they had been hunting them.

Now a judgment handed down by the Mossel Bay Magistrate’s Court has changed that. On Friday, Leon Bekker, the George man who posed for photographs with a great white he had hooked and landed on the rocks in Mossel Bay in March 2011, was given a R120 000 fine or one year in jail for catching the shark. The sentence was suspended for five years.

Shark scientists have welcomed the sentence, saying it has set a precedent that will give law enforcement officials the clarity they need to prosecute great white shark hunters.

Essentially what the court found was that anyone using heavy fishing tackle and “big bait” in a known white shark area is guilty of breaking the law. The reason is that the angler knows the probability of catching a protected shark with that equipment is high.

Shark scientist Ryan Johnson, who was an expert witness in the case, said the court finding was good news for great whites, which were vulnerable to extinction.

Anglers needed very specific heavy equipment to catch great whites.

“A lot of law enforcement officers were reluctant to prosecute because they knew it was difficult to prove the anglers had targeted white sharks. This prosecutor analysed the law and said as anglers fishing with heavy equipment in an area known for white sharks, they would have a reasonable expectation of catching great white sharks, and so just by fishing with that equipment in that area they are in effect breaking the law. “Leon (Bekker) had caught white shark before. He knew the probability, and as such was breaking the law even before he caught the shark,” Johnson said.

The photographs of Bekker giving a thumbs-up sign with the bleeding shark at his feet, published in the Cape Times two years ago, sparked anger from many readers.

His was not an isolated case. Several Facebook pages contain photographs of anglers posing with dead great whites. Shark scientist Alison Kock said the court finding had effectively scrapped the anglers’ defence that they had not been hunting great whites.

“It’s got rid of that grey area. You need very specific heavy tackle to catch white sharks and you should not be using it in known great white hot spots. It’s a great outcome,” Kock said.

The great white hot spots include Mossel Bay, False Bay, Gansbaai and parts of Struisbaai.

Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries spokesman Lionel Adendorf welcomed the sentence.

“This is the first great white shark case and conviction in any South African court. We are certain that the sentence will serve as a deterrent.”