Government on the hunt for sharks

Saturday 11 Dec 2010

Environmentalists and Egyptian authorities are at odds over the fate of Egypt's sharks


Eye witnesses say more than two of the threatened oceanic whitetip and mako sharks were hunted by officials recently in their search for the sharks thought to have caused one death and five injuries off the caost of Sharm El Sheikh last week.

“I don't like the idea of random killing, there is no justification, aside from the fact that it is illegal. You can catch them and transport them, then the chances of their survival outside the sea are very limited, but if they survive, how can you restrict their movement? Relocating them is not an answer to the problem,” says Elke Bojanowski, of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA).

The answer to the crisis according to Bojanowski and other eviromentalists is to study the sharks’ behaviour and see what has changed with the usually peaceful and confident sharks.

Several factors might have contributed to the disturbance of an otherwise healthy marine feeding cycle. Among these is the high temperature  and overfishing. “Fishing for eating is not a problem, but fishing using nets, and fishing in threatened places, fishing for small fish, and fishing for inedible types of marine life is the problem,” says an environmentalist who wished to remain anonymous, who added that the limit for fishing in the Red Sea should be 3000 tons a year, but is currently at 25,000 tons a year.

Besides fishing, feeding and baiting while snorkeling is also thought to have triggered unusual reactions from the sharks.

Although shark biting incidents have occurred in the Red Sea region throughout the last six years, and included the death of a French woman in June last year, researchers insist the recent attacks are a surprise.

“Last year it was one case, it was nothing like this. No one had any reason to see this coming. This is a much more complex situation because there has been no meticulous study of shark behaviour with humans," says Bojanowski.

Many disagree with how the Egyptian government is dealing with the situation. Some environmentalists withdrew from the committee formed to deal with the crisis because of its “unscientific and disorganized attitude” claims one environmentalist who wished to remain anonymous.

According to Bojanowski, the media has done a lot of damage by publishing “sensationalist headlines and horrifying photos.”  

Bojanowski insists that hunting the sharks is not a solution because it is still not known how many sharks were responsible for the attacks, or what provoked them. Even the one Oceanic Whitetip shark that everyone was sure did two of the attacks was seen interacting with divers recently. “No one can really tell what is going to happen, it is a very unusual situation that has never happened before,” says Bojanowski who likened swimming in the sea to crossing the street - there is always a minimal risk involved.

Witnesses saw a female Oceanic Whitetip shark right before the first two attacks. The shark was photographed when a woman was attacked several days later. During that attack, the woman, who was identified as a 70-year-old German national, died on Sunday after the shark bit her thigh and severed part of her arm.

Egyptian authorities are concerned that the shark attacks will be problematic to the tourism industry. Many tourists are cancelling their bookings and Russian tourism has dropped by 20 per cent.

A ban on swimming in Sharm El Sheikh, was set on Sunday after the German tourist was attacked.

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