Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Egypt's Shark Frenzy: incidents bring scientists in search of answers

Having taken a few days away from the RTSea Blog while on a film assignment, I return to find the public relations wheels in full spin at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, with sharks being on the losing end once again.

Over the past few weeks, there have been five shark incidents in the waters off this popular Egyptian tourist resort, reaching a fevered pitch with the death of a 70-year old German woman who was snorkeling close to shore. There's no doubt that the frequency of these encounters is unusual and the pursuit of a cause-and-effect would be a sensible step. However, first the media and the knee-jerk reactionaries step in, ala Jaws, with beach and dive site closings, hunts for "killer sharks" and government officials concerned with the loss of substantial revenue for the Sinai tourist business. News coverage is laced with a multitude of theories put forth by a cavalcade of experts (as of this writing, there are 11 articles listed in UnderwaterTimes.com alone).

While the Egyptian government has enlisted the services of several shark experts and shark conservationists, including Dr. George Burgess of Florida's International Shark Attack File and Marie Levine of the Shark Research Institute, to investigate these attacks, hopefully, at some point, responsible parties will all collectively take a breath and step back to investigate the situation calmly and dispassionately.

Step One: Understanding the basics
With all the frenzied media proclamations of a shark attack binge taking place, some fundamental facts get sidelined. And while they have been mentioned many times before, it is worthwhile to touch on them one more time.
  • Of the 380+ species of shark, there are only a handful that, given the right circumstances, pose any threat to humans.
  • Large sharks are apex predators, top-of-the-pyramid hunters, just like "lions, and tigers, and bears, Oh my." And as such, we should not be surprised by their ability to inflict serious or fatal wounds.
  • But unlike those land-based predators, sharks do not ever place humans on their menu. The overwhelming majority of shark attacks are the result of mistaken identity.
  • Sharks play an absolutely critical role within the marine ecosystem as predators and scavengers. To eliminate sharks either regionally or globally simply for our own sense of personal safety would be total folly and absolutely disastrous for maintaining a healthy ocean environment.
  • That the "killer" shark or sharks could be located and caught is utterly ridiculous. It is a totally random exercise, like finding a needle in a haystack, and typically results in innocent sharks getting killed (not that any sharks were guilty in the first place). Realistically, its purpose is to assure the public that steps are being taken to protect their safety - pacification through public relations without any real understanding.
According to the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, "Two individual sharks were caught on 2 December, one Mako shark and one Oceanic White Tip shark. Comparing the photographs of the Oceanic White Tip shark responsible for the second attack with the images of the captured Oceanic White Tip shark, it is clear that they don't show the same [shark].”

Step Two: Taking reasonable measures
Initially, Egyptian officials closed the beaches at Sharm el-Sheikh and many of the local dive sites, but by the weekend, all were re-opened. If one considers the topography of the Red Sea and how it impacts shark movements, it becomes apparent that such beach closures would seem perhaps reasonable but ultimately unnecessary.

"The Red Sea is one of a kind. It is narrow and deep and that means that whereas in the Mediterranean, sharks are found only in the middle of the sea, in the Red Sea they can arrive close to the shore. If you go out 50 meters in Eilat [Israel], you are already at a depth of 100 meters, so big sharks can get pretty close to the shore," said Dr. Avi Baranes of Israel's Interuniversity of Institute for Marine Sciences. I can personally attest to the underwater landscape of the Red Sea. It is one of my all-time favorite dive locations and I found that, at many sites, I could reach considerable depth while still quite close to shore.

But if you are a pelagic or open water shark, like the suspected oceanic whitetip shark, then it is unlikely that you will stay long in any one area. Said Dr. Mahmoud Hanafy, a biologist at the Suez Canal University, "[The government]
adopted the wrong approach by shutting down the diving sites. It’s nonsense that they shut down a diving site like Ras Nosrani, and allow it in Ras Muhammad. A shark swims hundreds of kilometres a day. Today it can be in Ras Nosrani, tomorrow in Tiran, and after somewhere else. What’s the point of shutting down a site then?”

While calm is slowly being restored by those in charge, they are now beginning to turn to the experts for possible explanations as to the specific causes for the recent attacks and whether there is an overriding reason or issue at work here. There are very well respected shark experts in the region who have been studying the sharks of the Red Sea, Mediterranean, and Arabian Seas for many years. And assistance can be provided by major shark conservation organizations and other researchers globally.

But regardless of the group, it will take some time to ascertain the root causes. As reported in the U.K. Telegraph, "
Elke Bojanowksi, a leading researcher on Red Sea sharks, admitted that the international team hastily put together to track the predators down was in possession of very few details. 'No one can honestly say whether it was one shark or more,' she said. 'We are trying to get more information on what happened and why it happened.'"

Step Three: Theories that must be investigated, not sensationalized It seems a reasonable assumption that something has served to increase the number of sharks closer to shore, thereby increasing the odds for shark-human interaction. But to make that determination, the researchers will need to calmly and methodically investigate a wide range of possibilities. In the end, it might be just one or a combination of factors. There are already many opinions and accusations swirling about, being picked up and sensationalized by the media. They range from the results of overfishing, to illegal shark feeding, to the dumping of livestock at sea.

As in many other areas of the world, the Red Sea has felt the impact of overfishing. This can mean a loss of potential prey for many sharks and could alter their behavior, with the sharks coming in closer to shore in search of food. Doing so would increase the likelihood of a shark coming in contact with a snorkeler or swimmer away from the beach. Then the odds of mistaken identity while seeking food begin to soar. However, it doesn't necessarily explain this recent rash of attacks that all took place within a fairly small area - just a three-mile stretch of shoreline.

Illegal shark feeding or chumming could be involved in attracting more sharks, thereby increasing the odds for an encounter. Now first, I need to say that based on my personal and professional experience, I do not subscribe to the notion that feeding sharks makes them associate man with food (as in becoming potential prey) - a theory often used as a rallying cry by shark diving opponents. It hasn't been scientifically proven and, in fact, there is documented research to the contrary.

However, repeated feedings can attract sharks to an area (conversely, when the repetitive feeding stops, the sharks dissipate), and if that area is in close proximity to bathers . . . well, there go those odds again. This is why responsible shark diving operations are always conscious of where their activities take place. They consider location, topography, the species in the area that might be attracted, the intensity or longevity of the feedings, the type of food or bait used, and the proximity of swimmers or bathers.

Researchers and government officials will need to investigate not the activities of legitimate dive operations but some of the local operators or other tourist operators who may not be so conscientious. Quoting an anonymous dive instructor, the U.K. Telegraph reported,
“'It is more likely to be the glass-bottomed boats that take tourists out fish spotting for the day. Sharks are easily attracted by being fed.' An instructor working for Ocean College dive centre in Sharm el-Sheikh warned that the less reputable diving schools were using bait to entice oceanic whitetip sharks and impress their clients in a bid to compete with the more established companies."

The last of the current theories involves the dumping of dead livestock in the nearby waters by ships arriving from Australia with sheep and cattle bound for use in November's Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. This would certainly attract sharks and increase the possibility of shark-human interactions, with sharks mistaking a swimmer of snorkeler for a floating carcass.

The Shark Diver blog immediately started investigating when the latest attack was reported and interviewed Jochen Van Lysebettens, manager of the Red Sea Diving College at Sharm el-Sheikh:
SD: So what is happening in Sharm el-Sheikh, what's the word on the street, what are the local dive shops talking about?
JVL: There are rumors, Chinese whispers, of sheep floating in the water.
Sheep in the water? How does a sheep get in the water?
One instructor from another dive shop says he saw a dead sheep floating in the water a few days before the first attack, could have been transported and fallen into the water. Is it chumming or not, I do not know. But, as I said these are rumors only.

# # #

Once the proverbial shark mania has quieted down, perhaps the researchers will be able to determine a root cause to these recent events and the Egyptian government will take reasonable, measured steps that will address the issues. The one thing that has been clearly proven time and time again throughout the world: the sharks are not at fault. One way or another, mankind has encroached upon their domain, and nature has a way of telling us when we have gone too far.


Shark Diver said...

as always richard great stuff

Shark Diver said...

tracked back the dead sheep story...September 26 2010