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Gill Nets Help Protect Tourists : S. African Beach Patrol Keeps Sharks Fenced Out

November 23, 1987|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

Those were difficult years, however, as she tried to regain the confidence of the swimmers and also keep the hoteliers happy.

"It was absolute hell," remembers Davis, a dark-haired 57-year-old who stands 5 feet tall and is said to run the board with a firm hand. "My phone and my ears were red hot. I had hotels, town councils, everybody yelling at me for closing the beaches.

"Now they realize we close the beaches for good reasons--not because we want to be a spoilsport," she added.

Not Completely Effective

Over the years, the Shark Board has grown into a powerful force in this province. Today it has an annual budget of $2.25 million and a uniformed staff of about 250. The number of nets it oversees has quadrupled, and the number of beaches it protects has tripled since its inception.

Board scientists say that while the nets reduce the probability of a confrontation between shark and man, they cannot be considered 100% effective. They only cover about 10% of Natal's coastline, for example, and nearly half the sharks caught in the nets were on the coastal side of the mesh, heading out to sea. Closing beaches after heavy rains, when the debris from rivers pours into the ocean and lures some species of sharks, also helps prevent attacks.

Whatever the reason, the system works. Only two shark attacks have occurred in areas where the nets were in working order, and the numbers of swimmers over the years has increased sharply.

Earlier this year, a man was bitten on the heel by a small shark in waters protected by the nets. In 1980, a 24-year-old man who was body surfing in a netted area at Ballito was attacked by a 9-foot-long, 600-pound great white shark. He survived but lost his foot.

Expanded Investigations

Far from scaring people, the presence of Shark Board boats has become a soothing sight. Talking about the dangers of sharks pays other dividends as well: The board finds that it hears less grumbling when it decides to close beaches.

"We've changed the attitude of the average holiday-maker toward the shark threat," Davis said. "When there's an attack and we do an investigation, we report it precisely as it happened. It gets people to say, 'Silly boy. He shouldn't have been surfing in an area without any nets.' "

In recent years, the Natal Shark Board has begun investigating shark attacks elsewhere along South Africa's 2,700 miles of coast. About five attacks occur each year, most involving surfers or spear-fishermen in the colder waters off Cape province or in unprotected areas of Natal.

Shark Board employees interview survivors, study injuries and even X-ray chewed-up surfboards to try to identify the attacker.

Humans 'Not Their Staple Diet'

"One of the things that has come out clearly is that many of these are cases of a frightened reaction by the shark or a case of mistaken identity," Davis said. "It (the shark) bumps into somebody, takes a nip and goes away. Human beings are not their staple diet."

The last fatal shark attack in South Africa occurred a year ago off Cape province. But such deaths are rare, partly because lifeguards use a special first aid kit designed to stabilize a victim and reduce the chances that he will die of shock.

Some scientists criticize the nets for upsetting the ocean's ecosystem by killing sharks and such sea creatures as dolphins, about 50 of which die every year in the nets.

Harry Richards, a University of Natal zoologist studying the dolphin population, says the catch rate of bottlenose dolphins--about 25 a year--is "significant and unacceptably high." Only about 600 bottlenose dolphins live along this coast, according to Richards.

"The whole environmental impact of the nets has been swept under the carpet for the last 20 years by the Shark Board's public relations efforts," he said. "While shark nets have been portrayed as protecting people from sharks and protecting the tourist industry, there is this hidden cost that hasn't been assessed."

Davis, of the Shark Board, said, however, that "we're not even making a dent in the ecosystem at all. Our fishing is not intensive, and we're always looking for indications that a population in the sea might be under stress."

"I don't like catching sharks," she added. "I wish to goodness we could find some way else to keep people and sharks apart."

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