The City of Cape Town, along with its Shark Spotter programme has noted that there is an absence of great white sharks in the False Bay area.
The Shark Spotters applied research programme has been monitoring great white activity and behavioural ecology in False Bay since 2004.
“Between 2010 and 2016, spotters recorded an average of 205 white shark sightings per year at their operating beaches during the spring and summer period,” the City’s Mayco Member for Spatial Planning and Environment, Marian Nieuwoudt, said.
“However, in 2018 the total number of shark sightings recorded fell to only 50, and this year there has not been a single confirmed white shark sighting by the spotters. Neither has the Shark Spotters applied research programme detected any of the tagged white sharks on their tracking receivers since 2017.”
This pattern has been mirrored at Seal Island in the middle of False Bay. Shark activity at Seal Island, historically an important feeding ground for great whites during the winter period, has plummeted.
The shark cage diving eco-tourism operators, who would normally witness multiple individual sharks visiting their vessels and up to 30 seal predations daily, have not had a single great white sighting at Seal Island in 2019.
“Further supporting evidence of the absence of these large apex predators is the lack of any feeding or bite marks on the whale carcases the City has removed from False Bay this year,” Nieuwoudt said. “To our knowledge the absence of great white sharks from False Bay has not been recorded or reported before.”
Great white sharks are apex predators and we do not know how their absence from False Bay would impact the ecosystem, or what has caused their disappearance.
White sharks, through the eco-tourism and documentary film making sectors, contribute significantly to Cape Town’s local economy.
Despite the lack of great white shark activity our tourism operators have managed to view seven gill sharks. Gill sharks were previously not present at Seal Island, and this confirms that there are changes happening within our ecosystem.
Despite the disappearance of great white sharks from False Bay, the City will still continue with the Shark Spotting Programme at popular beaches in:
– Fish Hoek
– Kalk Bay
– Caves at Kogel Bay
The Fish Hoek shark exclusion barrier will also be deployed for the annual Spring Splash on September 1, 2019, over weekends, public holidays, and school holidays during October 2019, and April 2020; and daily from November 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020, weather permitting.
Beachgoers are advised that certain seasonal spotting beaches will not have spotters during the 2019/20 summer season, namely:
– The Hoek in Noordhoek; and
– Danger Beach in St James
The City will review the situation in June 2020 and will adjust operations accordingly, pending the return of the great white sharks to False Bay.
“It is important that the City and Shark Spotters maintain an adaptive management approach to shark risk and that we use our resources responsibly. We have assessed all of the information at our disposal and we believe that a change in the spotters’ operating locations is a responsible approach to the new situation,” Nieuwoudt added.
All of the spotters will remain part of the programme.
“We want to be flexible and adaptable. Thus, to ensure that there are no job losses as a result of this change, the individuals who are employed to do spotting at Glencairn, The Hoek and Danger Beach, will be redeployed within the Shark Spotters programme to enhance their environmental education and applied research programmes. They will also assist with important marine and coastal conservation activities in partnership with the City,” she said.
The marine ecosystem is dynamic. It is uncertain at this point in time whether the great white sharks have left False Bay for good, or whether this reduced presence is only short-term. It is also true that the sharks may return at any time, and for the risk to increase accordingly.
“Residents and visitors should therefore remain vigilant and cautious when visiting beaches. The spotters still regularly observe other large shark species in the inshore area, such as bronze whaler sharks. While these do not pose as a significant threat to water users as white sharks, it is often hard to distinguish between the two species.
“Better to avoid being in close proximity to them especially when prey is in the area. The great white sharks may also return at any time. We urge water users to behave responsibly and to adhere to Shark Spotters’ warnings and to leave the ocean immediately when they hear the siren or are told to do so by a spotter or lifeguard,” said Nieuwoudt.
The City and the Shark Spotters applied research program will continue to monitor shark activity in False Bay and remain hopeful that the absence of white sharks is a short-term cycle in a larger, long-term ecological pattern.
The permanent loss of these charismatic and ecologically important apex predators could be potentially devastating for our local marine environment, Cape Town’s sense of place, and for our economy through the eco-tourism and documentary film-making sectors.
“We remain hopeful that the great whites will return to False Bay and will announce our first sighting when this happens,” Niewoudt said.