July 14, 2020

A Ghost of a Shark

Pippa Ehrlich

The first time I saw the ghostly grey torpedoes was early morning in late winter. When you have dedicated yourself to diving in the Seaforest everyday, it’s inevitable that much of the time, you find yourself shivering on the shore, looking out at a rough cold sea and dark grey sky. What is far less common, is swimming out into that cold rough ocean and coming across a large animal that you do not recognise. On this morning, the water was cold and the swell had churned up sand creating a cloudy effect in the otherwise clear ocean. Craig and I were swimming out over a sandy channel when a flash of silver sped past us. We turned to follow it and soon another perfectly streamlined, ghostly grey shark glided off through the kelp. We followed it and crossed paths with another and then another. They moved so quickly through the cloudy water that each sighting only lasted for a few seconds, but we managed to get a few shaky shots and later identified the animals as smooth-hound sharks.

Photos by Craig Foster.

I’ve been diving in False Bay for 10 years and in all that time, this was my first encounter with the grey torpedoes. It was shocking to me that such a large animal, that clearly moves around in schools and comes into fairly shallow water could be such a mystery. None of the other divers I shared the story with had ever seen seen a smooth-hound, but there are populations of common smooth-hound sharks (Mustelus mustelus) all over the world. Like all sharks, they are long-lived and slow growing, only becoming sexually mature at about 7 years old. They are known to travel as deep as 350m, but are mostly found in the shallows between 5m and 50m. Mother smooth-hounds give live-birth to as many as 18 pups at a time and records show that they can live to 25 years (recent studies suggest this could be closer to 13) and grow to nearly a meter and a half.

6 Months later I had an encounter with a second ghostly shiver. It was another cold and rainy day and the water had a similar cloudy quality to it. I was guiding a couple of French filmmakers who had only dived in the kelp forest a couple of times before. This time the water was really murky and we could scarcely see a couple of metres beyond our feet. I swam down and froze, hovering in the midwater as ghostly shapes swam into view from all directions. I swam up for air and motioned for the others to follow me down. We caught a couple more glimpses of the sharks and then they disappeared into the murk – another ethereal observation.

Video by Pippa Ehrlich
A few months later we got lucky a third time. Faine, Jannes and I were swimming in the shallows in the late evening when we came across a huge stingray sleeping on the sand. We swam down to get a few shots and glided with it for a while as it moved off. Once again the water was cloudy with surged-up sand. Then, as we headed back to shore we noticed some smallish grey shapes powering away along the seafloor. We swam out further into the murk along the sand and got a series of glimpses of the sharks. If we hadn’t all seen them, we might have questioned whether we’d imagined it entirely, because true to their enigmatic nature, these sharks just don’t seem to stick around long enough for any meaningful observation. Jannes did manage to get one snap – proof at least of an encounter with a ghost.
Photos by Jannes Landschoff.

We didn’t see or think of the phantom sharks again for the rest of the year. In the midst of film projects and changing seasons, their presence faded from our minds in the same way they seemed to dissolve into the cloudy Seaforest. Then, in December of 2019, a shocking image started to appear first on WhatsApp groups and then on local news websites. In a kind of CSI horror story, hundreds of bodies had been discovered in the sand dunes on a remote beach just outside of Cape Town. The bodies belonged to sharks that had been beheaded and had their fins and tails removed. They were identified as soupfin sharks and the article stated that along with smooth-hounds, they were actively targeted by shark fishermen in South Africa. I thought about the ghosts gliding through the murky forest, visible for only a glimpse at a time and struggled to connect them to the pile of carcasses gutted and left in the sand to rot.

The image sparked a surge in media interest and stories of South Africa’s shark fishery started to emerge. I knew that we fished for sharks, but the scale of it was not something that I had previously appreciated. The country started to exploit sharks and rays back in 1930 when there was a demand for their livers which could be used to produce Vitamin A.

The first species to be fully exploited were the soupfin or tope sharks and within a decade, their numbers were in serious decline. South Africa’s soupfins have never recovered. These slender sharks can grow to 2m in length and they too have a complex life history, only reaching breeding age around 12,5 years – a serious feat for a little shark that is only 20-40cm at birth. Biologists estimate that these sharks can live to be 40 years old, but tagging data suggests that they can live for as long as 60 years. Stock assessments published this year, indicate that 90% of South Africa’s tope sharks have been fished out. Even if catching them was banned today, it would take 50 years for this shark species to recover. They have just been listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.

An even bigger blow for South Africa’s sharks was struck in the 1990’s with the establishment of a new fishery that would target sharks on a massive scale. The fishery was split into two categories: one that targeted pelagic animals like blue sharks and makos and the demersal longline shark fishery (DLS) that focuses on smoothhounds and soupfins.

There has been very little in the media about South Africa's pelagic shark fishery, but these species are being actively targeted as well. Images from @aaron_gekoski.

The latest catch numbers show that in 2018 more than 30 000 (211 tons) smooth-hounds were killed. Last year’s numbers were marginally lower at 23 500 smooth-hound sharks (165 tons) and most of them were caught by the DLS. Between 1991 and 2016, smooth-hound numbers declined by 30%. If we hope to allow these animals to recover, biologists recommend that the catch rates need to be lower than 75 tones per year – that is less than half of where they are now. The IUCN also reported recently that current catch levels are unsustainable and has listed the sharks as Vulnerable.

The decline of smaller shark species like soupfins and smooth-hounds has consequences for the entire food web. Cape Town’s tourism industry has been rocked by the disappearance of the world-famous Airjaws population of flying, seal-snacking great white sharks. Initially, the disappearance was attributed to a pair of orcas known as Port and Starboard who have been seen hunting sharks and rays along our coast, but conservationists have challenged this, suggesting that the migration of the famous sharks is linked to the disappearance of smaller sharks – an important food source for them. Apex predators like sharks are critical for the ecology of ocean ecosystems, and we are still to discover what the vanishing of great whites will mean for False Bay. It has had drastic consequences for our economy as well: the shark diving industry contributes almost R1 billion to South Africa’s economy per annum, while the DLS fishery is estimated to be worth a fraction of that at R10-R15 million per year.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy for South Africa’s soupfin and smooth-hound sharks is the market for which they are being fished. Thousands of South Africans do not have access to the protein they need and perhaps, if our sharks were being killed to feed them, it could be justified. But as is the case with many of our marine resources, these animals are shipped off to a faraway land to feed people in other, wealthier countries – in this case, Australia. Traditionally, Australia’s fish ‘n chips was made with snapper, a fish species that became so over-fished that the Australian government has banned catches in certain waters until 2023. A different item appears on menus in Australia too: flake ’n chips. Flake is traditionally made with Australian gummy shark – the Australian smooth-hound, but as locals stocks collapsed, the Australians made moves to protect their own marine resources and started importing shark meat from New Zealand and more recently, South Africa.

For almost a year, we did not see or hear of any sightings of the ghostly sharks, and my ethereal memories of them in the cloudy seaforest were almost entirely banished by gruesome shots of bodies on the beach, and gold-crusted white flesh accompanied by french fries on Australian menus. But then, in March this year just before the world shut down, I found myself in awe of another shiver of ghosts. I was swimming through muddy, very shallow water (less than 2m) at a remote beach on the Cape Peninsula when a large, spotted torpedo glided underneath me, its belly almost touching the seafloor. I stopped and floated there as a steady stream of sharks swam below me moving in all directions in and out of the shallows. There must have been at least 20 animals and some of them seemed considerably bigger than me.

Perhaps it was because I could watch them by lying almost motionless at the surface, keeping my heart-rate very low, but for the first time, the sharks seemed unphased, or at least unaware of my presence. I stayed with them for about 25 minutes, sometimes swimming down to get a shot, but mostly watching from above. From my observations, their incredible shyness means that they probably feel safer in the murk and they are called hound-sharks, because they move around in packs, so to see so many was not unusual, but it’s hard to know why they had come into such shallow water. They feed mostly on crustaceans, small fish and cephalopods, so perhaps they were there to hunt. I wondered about this vaguely for a while, but as I floated there, transfixed, my thoughts were mostly on the other side of the Indian Ocean in Australia. I wished I could project that image into the minds of flake ’n chip hungry consumers, because perhaps if they experienced the grace and gentleness of these beautiful, vulnerable creatures, they would think twice before ordering them with a side of chips. 

The good news is that public pressure led by operators in the eco-tourism industry has motivated South Africa’s government to take a harder look at what is happening to our sharks and on 21 May 2020 an expert panel on sharks was appointed by Minister of Environmental Affairs, Forest and Fisheries, Ms Barbara Creecy. The panel is currently in the process of reviewing South Africa’s National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (NPOA Sharks) and will share their recommendations in September.

I hope that these recommendations include critical actions for protecting our sharks and that they are taken seriously and enforced, because otherwise I fear that South Africa’s smooth-hound and soupfin sharks will truly become nothing but ghosts.

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