Improving shark conservation in South Africa

23 June 2021 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo MLwp, Pixabay. Read time 10 min.

Rated among the top five countries globally with the highest diversity of shark and ray species, it stands to reason that South Africa should also be a world leader in their conservation. Dr Alison Kock, Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) and marine biologist at the Cape Research Centre, South African National Parks is part of a panel that recently reviewed the National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (NPOA-Sharks) to provide a roadmap for better protection of these predators in our waters.

“On the one hand, South Africa is very well known for its shark eco-tourism,” says Kock. “But on the other, we have also been involved in shark fishing since the 1930s.”

While sharks have not traditionally been the target catch, an increasing demand for shark meat, along with the decline of target species has meant that more and more sharks are being caught in several fisheries.

“At the moment, we have about 200 species of sharks and rays, of which 99 are being caught across eight different fisheries in South Africa,” says Alison. “Some of those are target fisheries, where they specifically target sharks and rays, and then other fisheries catch relatively large numbers of sharks and rays as bycatch in their activities.”

It is typically smaller lesser-known shark species that are most affected by fisheries.  However, the decline in their numbers may have a marked impact on the populations of the larger, more charismatic sharks.

It was, in fact, public concern around the disappearance of white sharks from False Bay and Gansbaai, two of their main aggregation areas in the Western Cape, that prompted Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) Minister Barbara Creecy to appoint an expert panel for the review of the NPOA-Sharks in May 2020.

The panel comprises a diverse range of experts representing government, national and international research institutions, marine resource management knowledge, as well as fisheries, conservation and biodiversity expertise.

A tad too ambitious

As a signatory to the United Nations’ (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), South Africa subscribes to the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA-Sharks). The idea is that the NPOA-Sharks closely aligns with this international guideline, while focusing on threats and problems facing local shark populations.

“Essentially, this provides the roadmap for government with its partners on where to focus their efforts around sustainably managing their shark and ray populations and conserving those populations,” says Kock.


“What’s really exciting to me at the moment, is that there is a really large consortium collaboration of organisations, universities, industry, government working on a national shark conservation plan.”

The NPOA-Sharks was officially completed in 2013, making South Africa one of the first countries on the continent to develop a plan of this nature.

Upon review of the plan last year, the expert panel found that it indeed closely aligned with the goals set out by the IPOA-Sharks, but also that it was so comprehensive, it bordered on being overwhelming.

“It had 62 different actions, all of which were important,” says Kock. “It really was comprehensive and aligned with the IPOA-Sharks guidelines, but we realised that the main problem was that it was just too ambitious.”

The panel determined that good progress had been made on the actions related to the generation of foundational knowledge, moderate progress was made on the actions related to optimal utilisation of sharks caught, improving capacity and infrastructure development and compliance, and limited progress was made on the actions relating to data collection and reporting from fisheries vessels, sustainable management and development of regulatory tools.

Recommendations for improvement

As a result, one of the panel’s first recommendations was to prioritise actions and set clear indicators that could be measured.

“We found that more prioritisation is needed in terms of the actions, in terms of the species, and in terms of the activities with indicators that could be evaluated and scored,” explains Kock.

Following on from this, the panel identified an additional four improvement priorities:

  • Improve communication between DFFE, its partners, scientists and the public

    “We identified a lot of really good work that had simply not been communicated,” explains Kock. “So we advised that more resources need to be dedicated towards communicating the work that’s done, and the outcomes of any concerns raised by the public.”

  • Incorporating ecosystems effects and spatial management measures

    “We noted that the plan focused on species-specific information, not really addressing the ecosystem effects of fishing on other marine life or their habitats ” says Kock. Furthermore, the use of spatial management was identified by the panel as being under-utilised. “The first step is doing research around specific areas that are critical for the conservation of many threatened and endemic species and it is here that students being supervised at UCT are so important.” Justin O’Riain, Director of iCWild agrees, stating that foundational knowledge of species distributions, movement patterns and diet have provided the bed rock of sound scientific evidence upon which policy and conservation interventions can be built.

  • Strengthening compliance and enforcement around key issues

    “There also needs to be better communication and co-ordination between science, management and the compliance and enforcement side of things around key issues,” says Kock, “particularly around illegal operations, such as illegal fishing in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) or catching of threatened or protected species.”

  • Modernisation of data collection and surveillance

    Finally, Kock explained that the panel had recommended modernising the collection of data and surveillance through mechanisms like automatic vessel monitoring systems and having cameras on board in the absence of independent human observers.

Successes so far

The panel’s presentation of their recommendations was met with a positive response from Creecy, who – Kock reports – encouraged her Department to “Just do it!” during a stakeholder engagement session at the Two Oceans Aquarium last year.

One of the most notable shark and ray conservation successes directly related to the panel’s review, has been the implementation of a ‘slot limit’ for the catch of demersal shark species in two of the main fisheries targeting these sharks.

“This slot limit stipulates that any shark smaller than 70 cm and larger than 130 cm needs to be thrown back into the ocean,” explains Kock. “This is a way of protecting breeding sharks, who are going to contribute to the population.”

Collaborative efforts

Although there is still much work to do in terms of navigating shark conservation along a truer course in South Africa, Kock says that it’s been heartening to see personal ambitions being set aside in an effort to collaborate for the greater good.

“What’s really exciting to me at the moment, is that there is a really large consortium collaboration of organisations, universities, industry, government working on a national shark conservation plan,” she says.

“For me, one of the biggest things for conservation is collaboration. And it’s been fantastic to see UCT students and staff contributing their data to developing this for the good of the sharks and the rays.”

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