On the back of a successful Paddle Out for Sharks held in 2012, more than 130 shark conservationists, divers, anglers, and paddlers marked World Oceans Day 2013 by ‘paddling out’ to the shark nets at Scottburgh Beach, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to highlight the plight of sharks in Southern Africa and demonstrate our collective concern for the way sharks are treated and perceived. We were joined on the beach by members of the public who share our vision.
Text by Amanda Barratt
The Paddle Out for Sharks is founded on a crucial spiritual element of surfer culture – paddle outs are traditionally held in memory of a surfer who has died. Part of why I was drawn to the concept of the event was because paddle outs are a demonstration of the seamless connection between beach user and the sea, a philosophy that I believe is essential to flipping dominant assumptions about sharks, and hopefully problematizing our relationship with the sea’s natural predators. I believe that common sense understandings of sharks and a lack of respect for the natural world has put shark populations in danger, and that beach users, especially the participants of the paddle out, having had different experiences and understandings of sharks, must be mobilized to be proactive in attempting to challenge assumptions about these animals.
Sharks have roamed our oceans for 400 million years, but have been decimated by up to 90% in some parts of the world. They are a clade of animals that has been demonstrated to be related to the health of our oceans, and the killing of sharks is often given little attention, as the public so poorly perceives them. Millions of sharks fall victim to the long net of industrialised fishing, as they are killed for their fins, to feed the demand for shark fin soup, with many fisheries practising the undoubtedly inhumane practice of finning of live sharks that are then thrown back into the ocean to drown. The demand for fins has also resulted in many small-scale and artisanal fishermen feeding the market, in order to make a living as industrial fishing has destroyed many of their local fisheries.
Large sharks are also popular targets for sport fishermen who see sharks as fair game. While many fishermen engage in safe and responsible practices, many predatory sharks are fished purely as trophies, in effect removing slow reproducing animals that are vital to the conservation of lower trophic levels.
Another problematic practice is the implementation of gill nets that are installed with the purpose of protecting beach users. Their operation misunderstood, the nets, which run the length of popular beaches in KwaZulu-Natal as one example, systematically reduce shark numbers in the netted areas, while impacting on the marine life in the netted areas and beyond.
The above examples of the fundamental human relationship with sharks reflects the mark we leave on our planet and our oceans, and it is the Paddle Out’s philosophy, that our behaviour should be challenged.
Editor of African Diver Magazine, Cormac McCreesh, summed it up perfectly, when he stated,
‘we have it within ourselves to rise above everything, to be human and humane. Our oceans and seas are the last remaining wildernesses. It’s never too late to start to look after what we have and the way we think of, and treat, sharks tells us something about how we treat our oceans.’
Paddle Out For Sharks is reaching far, and looks to gain support for its philosophy, from like-minded people, and the public. The momentum that Paddle out envisages riding on, is an energy where we take back our custodial duties of our planet, and engage and interact with the public, challenging assumptions and demonstrating our collective passion for sharks and our marine environment.
Paddle Out for Sharks focus is to challenge malignant discourses about sharks, encourage discussion that enables sustainable fishing, and we are firm that pressure for legislative changes need to come from the public, who must be proactive about the conservation of our planet.
Thus Paddle Out For Sharks is working to afford more value to the life of a shark, than a dead shark, by engaging the public and beach users, to educate them about the many different values of sharks, which we see as economic, cultural and effective, in the hope that we may challenge assumptions about sharks, and ultimately lobby authorities and law makers for the preservation of sharks in South Africa.