The billion-rand shark cage diving industry in Gansbaai faces a bleak future if fishermen continue to catch bronze whaler sharks, despite shark cage diving operators paying hundreds of thousands of rands to fishermen not to catch these sharks, says Wilfred Chivell, owner of Marine Dynamics in Kleinbaai.

These fishermen were catching bronze whaler sharks in full view of shark cage diving tourists on Wednesday last week. Adjacent to them is a boat with a negotiator asking them to please cease fishing. In the close-up, the carcass of a shark that was caught earlier can clearly be seen. PHOTO: Marine Dynamics

This issue came to a head on Wednesday 19 February when fishermen started catching these sharks, also known as copper sharks or bronzies, in full view of shark cage diving tourists. The small population of bronze whaler sharks has provided great viewing opportunities for tourists and has ensured the viability of the shark cage diving industry during a time when great white shark sightings are more infrequent due to a variety of reasons.

“Because bronze whalers are not a protected species the Great White Shark Protection Foundation (GWSPF), a collective group of tourist operators, conservationists and shark scientists in Kleinbaai, realised that the potential conflict between the non-consumptive tourist industry and the commercial and recreational shark fisheries could mean the death knell for their industry,” says Chivell.

“In a pro-active effort to avoid conflict, the GWSPF approached the then ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, to propose a small exclusion zone for the fishing of bronze whaler sharks. In a letter dated August 2019 minister Barbara Creecy, minister of the newly combined Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), indicated that she had instructed her department to commence with a multi-stakeholder meeting to discuss the proposal from GWSPF. Operators were hopeful that a compromise solution would be found, but this never happened.”

In October 2018 shark watch enthusiasts were most upset when a fisherman caught and killed a 100 kg copper shark next to where they were diving. In total four bronzies were caught and killed that morning.

Photo: Hennie Otto,

According to Chivell, because no action has been forthcoming from the DEFF despite their numerous pleas, operators in Kleinbaai decided to resort to paying fishermen to stay out of the cage diving area, in an effort to keep the shark cage diving industry from imploding.

“Over the last three years operators have paid out close to R900 000 to fishermen in a desperate attempt to keep the industry afloat. While we fully understand that fishermen can legally catch bronze whaler sharks, the minimal amount that they stand to lose by not fishing in the same area where we take our guests, cannot compare to the loss of an entire eco-tourism industry. If the capture and killing of these sharks continues in this small and specific area in which we operate, it will lead to companies closing and people losing their jobs.”

The fishermen in turn argue that the shark demersal longline fishing operations off the South Africa coastline are depleting the stocks and in turn affecting their livelihoods. Shark operators agree that the long-line operations are impacting the entire ecosystem.

It also seems that, while local fishermen were happy to accept payment for not catching the sharks, fishermen from other parts learnt of the arrangement and are now trying to muscle in on the action and receive payment. This is not a feasible option as, this too, will in the long run be financially detrimental to the shark cage industry.

According to an insider, the bronze whaler sharks are caught for their meat, which is exported to Australia where it is served as food, while the fins are exported to China for the shark fin soup industry. It is not against the law to export either the meat or the fins. In China shark fin soup is seen as a delicacy and a bowl of soup can sell for as much as R1 500, while dried shark fins can reach up to R10 000 per kilogram. The taste of a bowl of shark fin soup is normally derived from chicken and ham broth. The shark fin, which has no taste, is added only for its texture. More than 73 million sharks are killed annually for their fins.

“If urgent steps are not taken to create an exclusion zone near Gansbaai for the catching of bronze whaler sharks, the industry will sink. In Gansbaai the shark cage diving operators directly employ an estimated 250 people, and indirectly support more than 1 600 dependants. There are nine operators in the area, and they host over 85 000 tourists annually,” comments Chivell.

“Our companies invest millions in infrastructure and marketing that benefit the entire tourism industry in the Western Cape. We know that travellers base their decision on where to stay on the activities available in an area. Shark cage diving is one of those key activities.

“The government is spending millions on Operation Phakisa to develop the ocean economy. Shark cage diving and boat-based whale watching are both non-consumptive industries. It is sad to think that we are sacrificing a billion-rand industry that plays a major role in employment and development in a small coastal town, for the sake of the probable R20 000 that shark fishermen will earn. We want the minister to declare an emergency exclusion zone before the stakeholder meeting is arranged so that we can prevent any further losses,” he says.

Bronze whaler sharks are found in temperate waters and are usually seen in active groups. Bronze whalers can grow up to 3.3m in length during their 25 to 30-year lifespan. They mature late, only able to reproduce at around 20 years of age, making them a vulnerable species. They are considered near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

To further add to the woes of the shark cage industry, two orcas named Port and Starboard have not only been predating great white sharks but have now also for the first time started attacking bronze whaler sharks. At the beginning of the month the first case of orcas killing a bronze whaler shark for its liver and heart was reported. The incident took place in the Walker Bay area.

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