Project: COAST Species: Great White Shark Client: Shark Safe stakeholders Area: Cape Coast Country: Republic of South Africa
Funding needed: a) $112,000to ensure that the Cape Coast Surveillance operation can be initiated and b) $23,000 to complete matching algorithm software and the associated ocean testing, which will provide a permanent link between the tracking record of individual sharks with their genetic fingerprint, and provide conclusive evidence of recent poaching.
The great white shark is one of the oldest shark lineages, with an evolutionary origin dating back some 14 million years. Microsatellite analyses by various shark scholars (Blower, Pardini, Gubili etc.) have shown two distinct white shark haplotypes: an Indo-Pacific clade that includes the Australian population with dispersal trends to the western seaboard of the United States (California) with an additional remnant Mediterranean population, and the second Atlantic/South African clade that shows a dispersal trend to the lower Eastern seaboard of the United States (Florida). However, shark specialists Mike Rutzen and Dr. Sara Andreotti’s recent research has shown a third divergent South African clade (haplotype 3), suggesting there are actually two genetically different African clades. Their results confirm the three distinct lineages confined to 1) Mediterranean Sea, the Pacific and Indian Oceans (clade 1); 2) Atlantic and Indian Oceans (clade 2), and 3) a single haplotype confined to the Cape waters of South Africa. Mike Rutzen and Sara Andreotti have been recording individual sharks’ data for the past five years by way of two distinctly different methods. 1) Dorsal fin photography comparison, and 2) DNA coding obtained from live shark biopsy samples taken at four known white shark aggregation sites on the Cape Coast.
These two shark specialists have applied a holistic approach, combining dorsal fin mark recapture techniques with genetic fingerprinting, to provide a much more accurate and reliable method by which to evaluate the population of white sharks around South Africa’s coastline than has been previously available. (They are currently developing identification software in conjunction with Stellenbosch University, and have an immediate requirement for funding to complete their work). The most sobering data that these two shark specialists have recorded shows an estimated current population (calculated as 95 per cent accurate) of just 336 great white sharks left off the Cape Coast today, from an estimated South African population of 1,300 less than two decades ago (Cliff et al. 1996). Rutzen’s and Andreotti’s carefully collated data will no doubt be essential for future marine management decisions dealing with white sharks in this region. The great white shark is a protected species in South African waters. Unfortunately, since 1952 the Natal Shark Board has been using indiscriminate gill nets, and baited hooks on drum lines, to address shark/human encounters along the Kwazulu Natal coast, knowing that a reduction in the shark population will automatically reduce the negative encounters. Between 1978 and 2008 the Natal Sharks Board using nets alone killed 1,063 great white sharks; this does not include losses to drum lining, but it is known 2,500 sharks of various species are killed annually. Rutzen and Anderotti, to their credit, have addressed this issue by developing the Shark Safe barrier with Dr Craig O’Connell (PhD, University of Massachusetts). This technology has every chance of becoming a credible replacement for shark nets and drum lining. Illegal poaching for trophies (jaw sets) and fins, however, is on the increase. This criminal activity takes an unrecorded number of sharks, mostly great white sharks as these are the most valuable jaws. These illegal jaw sets are traded on the black market and no reliable figures are yet available, but it is known to be significant. Most of the poaching is conducted around the five known white shark aggregation sites. Although the great white shark is fully protected, criminal fishermen are plundering the remaining fragile population off the Cape Coast. In consequence, this globally important white shark population appears to be much more vulnerable than previously recognized, demanding increased efforts in a long-term management plan, and further research for improving conservation success to secure the very future of this much misunderstood ocean species, that has suffered from far too much Hollywood and sensationalist press negativity.
Rutzen has a great deal of intelligence on the main players involved in the illegal jaw trade. Launching sites have been identified, and most of these poachers are also involved in poaching abalone shellfish. ESPA could deploy a small surveillance team to gather photographic and other evidence over a 12-week period using specialist equipment, and the results handed to Nature Conservation Officials, and effectively bring the identified perpetrators to justice.
Your donations drive change. Even the smallest contributions help.