Government’s response to shark attack is wrong, say experts

Hossam el-Hamalawy, Saturday 4 Dec 2010

As the government scrambles to end shark attacks on tourists, experts call for the killing of sharks to stop and for snorkeling to be regulated instead.

A general view showing a partially empty beach at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010. An oceanic white tip shark badly mauled four Russian tourists swimming close to their beach hotels in two separate attacks at an Egyptian Red Sea resort, a local conservation official said. (AP Photo/Hussien Talal)

As the government steps up its efforts in hunting sharks in the Red Sea, marine life experts and the diving community have lashed out against the measures taken.

Three foreign snorkelers were attacked on 30 November and 1 December, suffering serious injuries. The attacks were blamed on, first, one Oceanic White Tip shark, and then on another two. The ministries of environment and tourism responded by shutting down diving sites in Sharm El-Sheikh, except for Ras Muhammad, and launched a wide shark hunt.

The National Park Authorities announced triumphantly they captured and killed two sharks on 2 December. However, the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) questioned whether the sharks responsible for the attacks had been found. "Two individual sharks were caught on 2 December, one Mako shark and one Oceanic White Tip shark,” according to a HEPCA statement. “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].”

“The government has created an unjustified media scare,” said Dr Mahmoud Hanafy, a professor of marine biology at the Suez Canal University. “They 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?”

Frustrated, with his voice thundering over the phone, Dr Hanafy continued: “Every year there are recorded eight million dives. If you get two or three incidents out of them, that’s nothing. When you get a road accident, do you shut down traffic in the country?”

Shark attacks are rare in the Red Sea. The last recorded attack was in 2009, south of Hamata, involving a French tourist. The incident was investigated by local authorities. Diving centers in the area were accused of shark feeding. It’s not clear if any legal action was taken.

“The practice of shark feeding must stop in the Red Sea,” said Dr Hanafy. “It disrupts the marine ecology and associates man with food in the minds of the sharks.”

The Chamber of Diving and Watersports has also issued a statement demanding authorities stop killing sharks, calling instead for measures to be taken to regulate snorkeling.

Officials from the Ministry of Environment contacted by Ahram Online either were not available for comment or gave conflicting accounts. One source at the ministry said the first shark hunted was to be mummified and exhibited in a museum, while the second one was “to be released into its natural habitat.” It’s unclear how it would released, as both sharks were killed.

“Sharks do not attack divers,” explained a diving instructor who did not want to be named. “They only attack snorkelers, mistaking them for food in sites where shark feeding takes place. The snorkelers’ inexperienced and erratic behavior also agitates the sharks. If the government kills those sharks, our environment and business are ruined.”

“We don’t have many sharks in the Red Sea left,” said Dr Hanafy. “They are a national treasure that has to be protected, not slaughtered.”

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