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Grassroots action leads to shark protection

By Meaghen McCord, 30th January 2013

Since the scientific discovery of Zambezi sharks in South Africa’s Breede River in 2009, our team has been motivating for the implementation of an emergency protection measure (EPM) to ban the disturbance of, and fishing for, the species to protect them in what might be described as their most unique habitat in southern Africa. As anticipated, public opinion regarding an EPM has been quite varied. At one end of the spectrum are conservationists, concerned members of the public, much of the South African angling community, and some of the scientific community. The other end of the spectrum includes individuals who believe “sharks should not be in rivers” and anglers who are irritated by depredation events (losing captured fish to sharks) and believe sharks are interfering with recreational catch rates.

The motivation behind the original EPM application was not only to protect a keystone predator from systematic killing, but also to assist in preserving the health and integrity of the Breede River ecosystem and conserving this near-threatened species on a national scale. We received tremendous support for the EPM from within South Africa and globally, including international NGOs, the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board and scientists from the South African Linefish Scientific Working Group, Large Pelagic and Shark Scientific Working Group, and Breede River Estuary Advisory Forum (BREAF).

Yet the struggle for Ministerial approval was a long one. Even three years after our original submission for EPMs, there was little to suggest the application would be approved and we began exploring alternative measures to protect and conserve the Breede River Zambezi sharks. Thus, it came as a great surprise to all of us when, just a few days ago, we were notified that the Minister of Fisheries had signed off on the proposal to provide emergency protection measures for Zambezi sharks and other Elasmobranch species in the Breede Estuary. This means that under South Africa’s Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA, 1998), with the exception of a scientific research permit issued by the Department of Fisheries, any persons catching, or attempting to catch, any Elasmobranchs in the tidal portion of the Breede Estuary shall be liable on conviction of a fine of up to R500 000 (US$55 000) or two years imprisonment.

The next step is the publication of a Government Notice to formally publish (or gazette), on a National scale, regulations which ban fishing for Elasmobranchs in the Breede Estuary. This will be done within the next few days.

Whether formal ecosystem-specific protection will afford the species any respite from depletion on a regional scale remains to be seen. However, as the first formal protection measure for the species in Africa (other than a recreational fishery daily bag limit), this represents a great triumph for concerned citizens, scientists and sharks in general.

We are extremely grateful to the concerned members of the public who supported this initiative and to the Department of Fisheries for their conservation vision and commendable action.

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