The controversial Ocearch shark tagging project headed by American Chris Fischer, the producer of the dramatised Shark Men series on the National Geographic Channel, started yesterdayin False Bay, despite the concerted opposition of the local and international shark experts and the local watersports community.

National Geographic has distanced itself from the shark hunting that is happening in Cape Town.

National Geographic has also distanced themselves from the project.

According to Chris Fallows of Apex Shark Expeditions, he and the other two shark cage diving permit holders in False Bay have been notified by Alison Kock, the head ‘shark scientist’ for False Bay and manager of Cape Town’s Shark Spotting Program, that the Ocearch project will be conducting their contentious research around Seal Island for ‘the next few days’.

Fallows, internationally renowned for his images of Great White Sharks breaching, and Rob Lawrence from African Shark Eco-Adventures have been offering shark cage diving trips to Seal island since 1996 and are vehemently opposed to the Ocearch project. The third operation, which is owned and operated by Ms Kock’s husband, has not commented.

Awareness of the research was first raised by Simon’s Town based wildlife photographer Dr Dirk Schmidt, the author of two books on Great Sharks, who issued a Shark Alert Advisory for ocean users in False Bay earlier this week after petitioning Dr Alan Boyd, the Director of Biodiversity and Coastal Research for the Dept of Environmental Affairs (DEA), who issued the permit to Fischer.

The permit, which was granted without any public participation, allows Fischer to use up to 5 000 kg of fish chum over the 20 day duration of the local operations between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas to attract Great White sharks to the vicinity of his specially adapted 126 foot ship, then hook and fight the chosen sharks until they are exhausted before lifting the shark out of the water on a platform.

Up to 30 scientists from 16 organisations then have a maximum of 20 minutes to conduct experiments on the shark, including blood and sperm sampling and attaching a Smart Position Only Tag (SPOT) which is permanently bolted to the shark’s dorsal fin even though the satellite tracking device may only work for a couple of years, before returning the shark to the ocean.

The entire operation is being filmed by Fischer, a former big game fishing TV celebrity, who is reportedly funding the project to the tune of US $2 million (approx. R15.6 million). This despite Nat Geo Channel not renewing the Shark Men series and distancing itself from Fischer’s current project, which is subject to an international petition criticising the methods used and integrity of the research findings produced.

Dr Schmidt issued the shark alert advisory to notify ocean users of the possibility of increased shark activity in and around the research area after receiving no response from Dr Boyd about the lack of public participation in the permit process and the methodology to be used.

Supported by undisputed world authority on sharks, Dr. Leonard Compagno of AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, Dr Schmidt has now petitioned Dr. Mayekiso, the Deputy Director General for the Oceans and Coasts branch of the DEA, to urgently suspend the permit on a number of grounds.

Dr Schmidt queries the amount of fish chum permitted and the fact that, if this does not attract the required sharks, then oil and scents from marine mammals may be used to create a ‘scent path’ in the area of the research, which may be as close as 2 000 metres from the coast.

He also raises questions over the lack of a sustainable protection plan for the tagged sharks; the controversial nature of the SPOT tags which have been known to seriously injure the sharks; the validity of the invasive research techniques; the catch and release methods including the hooking and fighting the shark to submission, the lifting and effects of gravity on the sharks organs while out of the water; the effects of the media component of the operation which may see proper procedures subverted by Fischer in order to ‘get the shot’ and the possibility of a fatality to a threatened species.

Fischer is on record as saying that all the research will be made public and has already published maps of the sharks tagged during his operations in the Port Elizabeth and Mossel Bay areas on the Ocearch Facebook page. These show that the sharks immediately leave the area where they have been tagged and have been found to go as far as 40 degrees South, which has never before been recorded.

Obviously the position of the sharks will also be available to the unscrupulous shark fin industry. This is particularly worrying at present as the entire fleet of Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) inshore protection boats is currently tied up in Simon’s Town harbour awaiting the resolution of the new management tender debacle!

Meanwhile no official shark alert warning has been issued by the Cape Town environmental authorities. Gregg Oelofse, the Head of Environmental Policy and Strategy, says that ‘permits for this kind of research is outside of the City’s jurisdiction and resides with Department of Environmental Affairs’.

Oelofse also says that the Ocearch project will only be operating in False Bay after the 20th of this month and that the permit states that the City may place an observer on one of the project vessels in any operations that take place outside of the approved White Shark Cage Diving area in False Bay, provided they apply two days in advance.

In the absence of any formal notification, this Shark Alert Advisory is being issued based on the latest news from Ms Kock, manager of the Shark Spotters program which is partially funded by the City, that the Ocearch project could be in operation from yesterday (Sunday).

Ocean users are warned that excessive amounts of chum, including marine mammal oils and scents, may be poured into the ocean and recently hooked, landed and possibly disorientated sharks may be released into False Bay over the ‘next few days’.

Concerns may be directed to the Director of Biodiversity and Coastal Research – Dr. Alan Boyd at email: ajboyd@environment.gov.za, to Gregg Oelofse at Gregg.Oelofse@capetown.gov.za and / or Alison Kock at alison@sharkspotters.org.za

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