November 2008 Shark Bytes
Posted on Sunday, 30 November 2008
Dear Shark Lovers
My apologies to everyone for missing out on October’s news! The windy weather in Cape Town during October and November is not to kind for going to sea so Chris & I always plan a good break over this period. This does not necessary mean a restful break as we have spent our time doing a 4 week trip through Botswana and Namibia and then a quick 2 week stop in Mozambique.
As one can well imagine we did not see too many sharks in Botswana and Namibia and we rather concentrated our efforts on our love of the African wilderness and the amazing variety on terrestrial animals. Our journey took us to the Mgadigadi Pans, Nxai Pan National Park, The Okavango Delta, The Caprivi Strip and Etosha National Park. This is supposed to be a shark newsletter so I am just going to show some images and hope that this will inspire all of you to visit these very special areas some day.
Sharks in Northern Mozambique
The shark part of our expedition consisted of visiting the Quirimbas National Marine Park and specifically the idyllic Quilalea Island in northern Mozambique. We were hosted by Quilalea Lodge and the intention was for us to look for sharks in the area and survey the different species and numbers of sharks with the intention of trying to get the locals to start running shark eco-tourism trips rather than killing sharks. The area around Quilalea was proclaimed a sanctuary (no fish take area) 6 years ago and as such we had high hopes of finding sharks here. On several dives we saw a multitude of magnificent corals, spectacular colonies of reef fish and encouragingly even some large groupers.
Looking at the area from a demographical point of view we were expecting to find black tip reef sharks, white tip reef sharks, and possibly even tiger, bull and great hammerheads as a multitude of suitable habitats exist.
After the first few days of not having any luck we remained positive as the surrounding areas were teeming with bait balls of bonito and small yellowfin tuna although really large gamefish were conspicuously absent. These bait ball areas are normally a certain area for finding sharks. After spending a number of days chumming in this vicinity and not having any luck we decided to jump in with the bait balls in order to see if there was any shark activity below the bait balls that we could not see from the surface. A spectacular sight greeted us with many hundreds of tuna frenziedly feeding on small unidentified bait fish.
We even had about 10 large mobula type devil rays come to inspect us. We had never actually witnessed rays feeding on a bait ball before and were just astounded by the sights that we saw. Unfortunately we were never able to get into the bait ball quick enough to see this from underwater. It is not as easy as it seems as these bait balls move at incredible speeds and the intense feeding only happens for a few moments. From the boat we observed these rays as they attacked the bait fish. All ten of the rays would “fly” through the bait fish and it looked like machine gun rounds cutting through the water, and the noise accompanied by this was also something to behold. I can truly say that this is one of the most spectacular natural sights I have seen in 2007!
The rays were the only elasmobranch activity we were to find as still no sharks were seen.
We were working in a fairly large area and as we systematically searched, our hopes of finding sharks began to dwindle. We also began to realize that the Sanctuary was not exactly free from poaching so we thought that we would chat to some of the local fishermen and ask for their advice on where to find sharks.
We were soon told of many places where many sharks could be guaranteed to be found. Most of the sharks described seemed to be reef sharks but there was also promise of very big Great hammerheads and occasionally tiger sharks.
The local knowledge comes from catching sharks and the bigger picture started to become apparent. A number of these fishermen joined us on the boat to look for the sharks and they seemed to be generally shocked at not finding any, the horror of what impact the longlines had made seemed to suddenly hit home. We had many interesting conversations on the boat and from their side it was easy to see how catching sharks led to much needed monetary funds. Look out for the photo that shows the ingenious fishing tackle “storage unit” for one of the fisherman we met!
Apparently about five years ago Asian long lining vessels moved into the area and the locals were employed to work these longlines, specifically for sharks. Gillnets were also used. We were told how easy it was to catch the sharks and how quickly the sharks were caught. Sharks caught ranged from reef sharks to huge great hammerheads to giant sand sharks and even sawfish. After about three years the number of sharks being caught rapidly decreased and as it was no longer financially viable for the big longlining boats to be present, they moved off. The shark harvesting still did not stop there and now there are various shark fin collection points for the locals to sell to and then once in a while the Asian boats stop off and collect the fins. Also of interest was the fact that some of the fishermen told us that several buyers came from West Africa to buy the fins. It is supposedly illegal to catch and kill all sharks in Mozambique but as there is no enforcement the few sharks that are around are still fair game as are the manatees and dolphins. Sadly it also appears as though the very few remaining manatees have been killed in the Quirimba’s area.
The area is surrounded by mangrove trees which is generally a nursery area for many species of fish as well as for sharks and rays. We were very saddened to hear that the small black tip reef shark pups that seek shelter here are frequently caught as shark pups are considered a delicacy in the area.
It was very difficult, and heart breaking, to sit and listen to all of this but it is the harsh reality of sharks not only in Africa but around the world. We personally feel that a very dangerous line is being crossed and it is foolish to think that a sea devoid of sharks and other predators is not going to have severe consequences.
After exhausting the area we only had one small success and that was one bait that had been sampled (about 6 six small bite marks) by a reef shark pup in the mangroves. We did not actually see the shark but it had definitely visited our bait.
We spent more than 45 hrs on the water chumming for sharks in 9 different areas including 6 completely different habitats. Our conclusion was that there is a good chance there are still some sharks in the area although it is a dangerously small population and nowhere near enough to be able to offer eco-tourism opportunities.
On a positive note we did find a nursery area for blue spotted stingrays in the mangroves. We did a number of snorkels here and on each dive we would see between 10 and 20 small rays nestled at the bases of the mangroves. As long as we kept completely still they had no problem swimming among us. To observe the rays gently gliding over the mangroves was magical.