Wanna See What Keeps Sharks Up at Night? Look in the Mirror

Marine explorer and shark expert Ryan Johnson has dedicated his career to raising awareness and protecting these threatened predators.

great white shark
A great white shark swims near Dyer Island in Gansbaai, South Africa. (Ryan Pierse/Getty)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

New Zealand native Ryan Johnson arrived in South Africa in 1998 to undertake postgraduate studies in zoology. The following year he was given the opportunity to conduct research on the great white shark at Dyer Island near Gansbaai, an area known for its dense population of sharks.

Scientists must simply step up and utilize the mass media and public dialogue to supply and spread the truth about how vulnerable sharks are and how poorly we are managing them.

Living on Dyer Island for a year, Johnson investigated the impact of the white shark cage diving industry on sharks and also whether it was making the fish more dangerous to humans. This experience led to a fascination with sharks and a passionate career that’s been dedicated to their protection.

TakePart recently caught up with Johnson to gauge his concern for the survival of the great white and other shark species, and the significance of including great whites on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

TakePart: For those unfamiliar with your background, tell us a bit about your work with Oceans Research and Oceans Aware?

Ryan Johnson: After my work on Dyer Island, I began my own research career, but having an entrepreneurial bent I opted to found my own research institute rather than seek employment at a university or established institute. To achieve this, I enlisted the support of three of my colleagues and we founded Oceans Research. Our goal was to create an organization where passion allowed people to thrive and make their own contributions to researching and conserving marine life in southern Africa.

Following this, I realized that for conservation efforts to be successful, there has to be education, awareness, and legislative initiatives in addition to research. Thus came the formation of Oceans Aware, an organization dedicated to educating youth about the marine environment and empowering them to make wise choices when it comes to protecting this vital resource.

In 2004 you were part of a team that tracked a great white shark named Nicole on a 20,000 kilometer journey from South Africa to Australia and back—the longest ever recorded tracking of a great white shark. How did this research help get great whites listed on CITES?

It was a major component in the movement to get the white shark listed on CITES. But there was also other research that was central to the CITES effort. For instance, the satellite tracking of California’s white sharks into the middle of the pacific oceans. The basic premise of all this research was that national protection was insufficient to safeguard this species due to the fact that it is an ocean wanderer and is not restricted to occurring within a single nation’s exclusive economic zone. As such, effective management of the resource requires international cooperation. CITES restricts cross-border trade in CITES listed species and was the most powerful tool available to protect the white shark on an international scale.

There’s been a lot of controversy around the process of chumming—where scientists dump a mixture of water, fish oil, and mashed parts of sardines into the water to attract sharks so that they can attach satellite and sonar tags to them. You co-authored a paper in 2006 that indicated that this practice doesn’t, as some believe, increase shark attacks on humans. Do you think people have come to accept this view, or are they still fearful that there’s a link between the two?

Shark attacks are always going to be incredibly emotional. And when humans try to understand such a tragic loss of life they seek answers and they seek ways that they can control the situation to stop such tragedy in the future. With white sharks, the fact that people interfere with them (chumming and baiting) for research and for tourism does not sit well with user groups who feel they are vulnerable to a shark attack. These water users believe that if they can stop humans from interfering with white sharks via chumming and baiting then sharks will not bite them. This is unfortunately not the case, and white sharks will continue to bite on rare occasions for as long as people and white sharks coexist. Chumming and baiting does not make these sharks more likely to attack a human they encounter—it is simply not how conditioning works.

But truth be told, with so much emotion invested into this argument, it is near impossible to change the minds of those who believe that chumming and baiting endangers them and their friends. I personally try to keep a dialogue going, but there comes a point where you have to agree to disagree. Fortunately for the scientific and shark tourism community, the government in South Africa has assessed the evidence in a non-emotional and pragmatic manner and continues to support these activities.

A number of news reports have stated that even though South African officials have come across fisherman equipped with tackle designed to catch white sharks—and are fishing in areas that are known to be great white aggregation sites—the authorities say that intent can’t be sufficiently established to lead to a successful prosecution. Why is this and how can the laws be changed?

The law is in fact in place and fishermen can be prosecuted for simple intent. That is, throwing in tackle in an area where the fishermen has a reasonable knowledge that he may catch a white shark. There is utterly no defense for a fisherman if caught throwing in tackle that can land a great white in a white shark aggregation site.

The issue was that compliance officers and the government did not have confidence or knowledge to allow a good prosecutor to illustrate this. Luckily with the Leon Bekker case, the state provided an excellent prosecutor who explained all this to the judge and defense attorney which resulted in Mr Bekker [who was accused of abusing a great white] pleading guilty. I believe this case has given compliance officers and the government the confidence to do their work since they understand the law is behind them. 

How can we increase awareness among the general population to the fact that great white sharks are an endangered species?

The reality is that the scientific community has traditionally been reluctant to actively take a position in public dialogue with regards to many of the misconceptions about sharks and management. By not doing so, you allow people who are less informed to push agendas without restraint. Scientists must simply step up and utilize the mass media and public dialogue to supply and spread the truth about how vulnerable sharks are and how poorly we are managing them. The days when scientists could hide away in their laboratories is over.

Could you tell me about some of the other shark species that are at risk and outline some of the factors that are contributing to the reduction in their numbers?

Today, most sharks are at risk as the shark fin soup trade is not picky about where the fins come from. In South Africa, the sharks I’m very concerned with are the pelagic species such as blue sharks, mako sharks, porbeagles, etc. They do not have the eyes on them that many of the coastal species do. But the guys who go out and look for them are seeing them getting smaller in size, and rarer by the year.

The main issue is that the consummate demand from the market is outpacing the ability of the government to conduct research, let alone put in place informed and effective management plans. By the time such research and legislation is in place, many of these populations would already be hugely over exploited.

What do you think governments should be doing to protect the great whites and other sharks? Tell us in the COMMENTS below.

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