Living With Sharks: Emotion and Perception Trump Statistics

4th February 2013

Written by Jon Friedman

UCT Summer School 2013
Speaker: Gregg Oelofse, City of Cape Town

The third and last of the lectures at this year’s UCT Summer School series dealing with the topic of Living With Great White Sharks in Cape Town, was arguably the most enlightening of all the talks in the series, from a lay-man’s point of view. It was delivered by Gregg Oelofse, Head of Environmental Strategy and Policy for the City of Cape Town. His unenviable job is working at governmental level trying to keep the peace between the creatures of the sea and the communities who either rely on them for their livelihood, or the segment of society who simply wish that the dangerous parts of the ocean went somewhere else, that they could enjoy the sea without the worry of being eaten by something bigger, faster and with very many more teeth.

Even with all the media hype and focus on shark attacks, Gregg is of the opinion that shark attacks on humans are a “non-issue” in comparison to the other risks most of us knowingly take every day of our human lives. He outlined attack statistics wherein it is recorded a total of 17 shark attacks in local waters between the years 2000 and 2012. Of which only five were fatal. Yet human nature, emotions and perceptions do not respond inline with statistics, Gregg tells us. He repeated the sentiment from the first talk in the series given by Ryan Johnson that shark attacks sell newspapers and that that is something that will likely never change, reiterating the media mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads”.

He went on discuss the issues around shark cage diving and how, while many point to the operators of shark cage diving excursions as encouraging sharks to view humans as a source of food, blaming shark cage diving is, to borrow a term from Alison Kock’s talk the day before, “toothless science”.

He then spoke at some length about the challenges his department faces in curbing or managing the human-shark conflict and detailed both the popular Shark Spotters programme (which is largely funded by the City of Cape Town and in-part by the Save Our Seas Foundation) as well as the controversial trial exclusion nets that will shortly go up to keep sharks out of the southern section of Fish Hoek beach. Oelofse then took a round of questions from the many concerned members of the public and judging by his answers to these questions, it is heartening to know that there is someone at the helm of the human versus Great White Shark debate, someone who is proactively able to view both sides of the coin and is able to advise and implement tactical measures according to the latest research while not necessarily reacting to public sentiment and emotion. Ultimately with the future wellbeing of the Great White Shark at heart.

He summed up his highly informative talk by posing the question “is shark safety needed in Cape Town?”. The answer – yes. For the people and yes for the sharks themselves.