SharkSafe Barrier: SA innovation protecting swimmers and sharks expands into international waters

Shark nets, commonly used in many coastal areas including South Africa to reduce the likelihood of humans being bitten by sharks, are responsible for the deaths of thousands of sharks and inadvertently trap and harm marine species like dolphins. A team of marine biologists at Stellenbosch University has developed an alternative solution, the SharkSafe Barrier. Their eco-friendly innovation is gaining international recognition with the first international installation on a private island in the Bahamas. The SharkSafe Barrier biomimics the visual effect of a kelp forest and generates a strong magnetic field through ceramic magnets, forming a double barrier that deters sharks from swimming through it. In an interview with BizNews, Dr. Sara Andreotti, a co-founder, and the Chief Operations Officer of the company, said humans fear sharks even though only 6-8 people are killed by sharks every year. She told BizNews that their device prevents shark deaths and the deaths of other marine life while providing safe swimming and surfing waters, which is good for tourism. The first successful commercial rollout of their innovation has been in the Bahamas and it is now being considered at a beach in Plettenberg Bay in South Africa. Dr Andreotti shed light on the alarming decline in the great white shark population in South African waters. She stressed that, contrary to the well-documented influence of Orcas, the primary cause of this decline can be attributed to human activities. By catching and illegal gill nets continue to pose serious threats, compounded by an exemption granted to the Kwazulu-Natal Sharks Board for the protection of great white sharks.  – Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the interview

Killing sharks to avoid human encounters go back to 1930s

The idea of killing sharks to avoid human encounters goes back to the 1930s. This concept that we should kill sharks to protect divers, surfers and swimmers comes from 1930; it comes from Australia. The idea is that the more sharks we kill, the fewer shark-human encounters we’re going to get. In South Africa, they started deploying these gill nets that are very efficient in trapping and killing marine life, including sharks. And then in 1999, they started replacing some of these shark nets, these gill nets with baited hooks called drum lines so that they could more specifically kill sharks and kill a little less dolphins and whales and turtles. But the problem remains in the fact that they are killing sharks. The development path of SharkSafe Barrier to prevent the death of marine life. 

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The Development Path of SharkSafe Barrier to Prevent Killing Marine Life

We are not killing anything. We studied sharks’ behaviour and we realised that they don’t like entering the thick forests of kelp, or seaweeds that we have here in South Africa. On top of that, we know that sharks have a sense that allows them to feel electric and magnetic fields in the water. They use that to detect where their prey is and if their prey is under the sand. They use that for migration, they use that when they’re hunting. So, if we put very large magnets in the water, the sharks can feel the magnetic field and if the magnets are big enough, the sensation is overwhelming for them. So, they cannot come any closer. We merged this idea with the visual appearance of a forest of kelp. And that is where the shark’s barrier design came from. The first time we had our technology together, combining the kelp looking like the magnet, was in 2012. The first time we wrote down the kelp barrier project, it didn’t include the magnet, that was back in 2000. The first time I heard of it, I heard from Michael Rutzen, a South African conservationist. He had this idea of using fake kelp to keep sharks at bay.

SharkSafe Barrier is Effective Against Great White Sharks

Before we put it on the market, which is why it took 15 years, we wanted to test it. So, we built a SharkSafe Barrier in Gansbaai, in an area called the Shark Alley, because of the presence of White sharks. First, we tested the magnet, then we created a curtain of fake kelp with a magnet in it and put fish on the other side, up the current. So, the smell of this bait would go through the barrier to try and motivate White sharks to cross it. But they wouldn’t; they would just swim around it. So that was a great step. From that, we built a bigger enclosure, a 15-metre by 15-metre square, again in the Shark Alley. We put the fish in the middle and then recorded with GoPro what the shark’s behaviour was.”

Every single time, and I’m talking about 63 different white sharks over two years of study, they would come; they could smell the chum. They would come around and smell where it’s coming from and swim around our square and swim around and swim around and then get a bit annoyed that they cannot cross it and go away.

Commercialisation Success in Bahamas, Fostering Peaceful Co-existence with Sharks

The first successful commercial rollout of our innovation is in the Bahamas. We did all the tests with bull sharks and great whites, which are often responsible for accidents involving humans. The problem we are talking about is not so much human safety. There are six to eight shark-related fatalities that happen globally every year. Six to eight is nothing, but the fear that people have for these risks is what justifies the use of shark nets and drum lines, or even giving permission, like they’re doing in Union Island or New Caledonia (these are French Islands), where the local municipality is allowing fishermen to go ahead and fish out bull sharks and tiger sharks just to reduce their numbers because they’re afraid for their tourism. That’s why we developed another technology to try and stop this shark cull that is happening in South Africa, Australia, and Reunion Island. It gives peace of mind to surfers and swimmers in areas where there is a shark presence, and we are trying to foster peaceful coexistence with these animals and take away the fear.

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Sharks Are Repelled, Manatees Can Pass Through

The barriers have been in place for three months now. The clients are happy. They sent me a picture and a video. What happened in that area is that they have manatees, they are these big marine animals, and they were worried that these animals wouldn’t go in because of the barrier. I told them that that’s not the case because the barrier is shark-specific, it doesn’t entangle marine life; only the sharks can feel the magnet.”

The other day they sent me pictures of a manatee crossing the pipes. So, they’re fairly happy that it was a success. It doesn’t entangle nor kill dolphins. We had seals playing in it. The fish use that as an artificial reef. So, it is also creating a new surface for biomass growth and we will have more fishes and vertebrates that will start colonising the structure while at the same time, if a shark comes, they won’t cross it.

A Low Maintenance Solution 

The magnets don’t change their strength, but the pipes are made of HDPE. Over time, the plastic will need to be replaced. We can recycle the outer plastic to make new pipes, but we are talking about maybe 20 years down the line. The idea would be to have proactive maintenance rather than reactive. So ,we keep it clean, we keep it nice. If we see that some of the pipes are getting old, then we can be proactive about it and clean it up, which is good for job creation as well. It’s not going to be a standalone thing; we can have a dedicated team.

Challenges in bringing SharkSafe Barrier to market 

I’m a scientist, I’m an academic. So, when Stellenbosch University asked me to commercialise these back in 2017, I didn’t know where to start at all. I have a PhD on shark population estimates and genetics, the furthest you can be from a commercial operation. Inovus is the commercialisation branch and IP protectors of the university sent me through a cleantech business accelerator program so I could start getting a little bit of the hang of the terminology and how it works, what investors would look for in a potential company start-up. And then slowly but surely, I got very good mentors, very nice people to walk the walk with me. And now we have a really good team with people who are experts in sales. Professor Marius Ungerer, the chair of our board, is a professor in business strategy and we had an engineer, a coastal engineer, Laurie Barwell on board and we managed to have a team of people that have the same belief we have to make this work that made all the difference. 

Sharksafe Barrier considered for Plettenberg Bay

Plettenberg Bay has great whites all year round. It is a famous aggregation site around South Africa for white sharks, we have little seal islands there. These seal islands are also at Algoa Bay, Mossel Bay, Falls Bay and Gansbaai. So, the sharks used to aggregate in winter around the seal island. And then in summer would come closer to shore, hunting other species, other sharks, other fishes. But Plettenberg Bay has seals in-shore. The white sharks are potentially in-shore all year round and that is what made the locals a bit worried about it. There was a viral video taken with a drone of these white sharks swimming very nicely next to the surfers. 

 99.9% of the time nothing happens, especially if the visibility is good, the shark swims by and goes, oh, okay, no food and carries on. But that made people a bit nervous about it. So, they contacted us and we went and surveyed the area. We spoke with the Bitou municipality even more after the accident. They send a support letter. They’re very keen on seeing something happening. But of course, there are costs involved in manufacturing, transporting and installing our technology. We need to also go through an environmental impact assessment or start the process with it before we have something permanent in the water.

Local Manufacturing, Durable Product, Striving to Reduce Prices

Our manufacturers are located in Maitland; they are called K&D Fabrications and have been with us for the last eight years of development and R&D. We make a really good team. The owner of the company is also a diver, so when we were experimenting with the robustness of our design, we would do so in Glencairn. The owner of the factory was in the water with me, tightening bolts, making videos, and ensuring everything worked.

As our company grows, we can potentially lower prices because if we become big enough, we can buy in bulk and reduce the overall price. The challenge at the beginning is that we are a new company; we need to build trust with our potential clients. That’s why this Bahamas installation is such a big milestone for us. It’s a real client that installed the barrier to protect their beach, and they’re happy.

We are working with the ocean, which is a bit of a hostile environment to build things in. At the moment, we have a very strong, high-quality product that we can install on rocks, mid-sand, deep sand. But of course, there is always room for improving the design to make it even more robust if possible and then find an even better balance between price and robustness without compromising on either. So, our effort right now is trying to reduce the price as much as we can while keeping it as strong as it is.

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Enhancing Tourism Without Harming Marine Life, Advocating for Shark Cage Diving

The risk of reduced tourism is what justifies shark culling at the moment and what justifies the shark nets. So, that is what we are trying to address: providing peace of mind without harming marine life. In documentaries and even cartoons for kids like Finding Nemo, sharks are often portrayed as villains.

We should put them in context. We should start looking at them the same way we look at other top predators like leopards, lions, tigers, and wolves. We changed our perspective and attitude towards these predators when we started learning more about them. We realised how important they are and that they need to be protected and we started being fascinated by them. So, that is where I would like us to get to when we are talking about sharks as well. 

Divers know them better. Anybody who has been diving with sharks will tell you they’re fantastic to dive with. People who have never seen a shark in their life will be very afraid of them. So it’s about getting to know them.

Shark cage diving is one of the most successful conservation stories we have for sharks because it makes these animals financially important by being alive. People from all over the world will come to South Africa and pay to see sharks alive and healthy in the water. That gives us a good reason to keep them protected.

Great White Shark Numbers in SA are in a Sharp Decline

My PhD work with Stellenbosch University, which I completed in 2015, involved counting White sharks. I did this by taking photo identifications so we could identify them like a fingerprint. Their dorsal fin is unique for every individual, and then I used genetic techniques. We collected samples around the entire coastline to see how the population was doing. The results show that genetically, they are not doing very well. They are very inbred. They went through some sort of bottleneck, historically and recently, that has been going on for decades. So,

The protection from 1991 was not sufficient to keep the population healthy and the protection that doesn’t allow people to kill them for consumption or trophy hunting does not apply to the Kwazulu-Natal Shark Board. They have an exemption. We still have poaching happening, by-catching is still happening, and illegal gill nets are still happening. So, the enforcement of the protection was not sufficient. This population had been declining slowly but surely for decades.

Then it came out more recently that they are gone in False Bay and Gansbaai. There are a few individuals in Mossel Bay. To date, I have not seen numbers to prove that the animals I used to see on the West Coast moved east. I personally counted 426 individual White sharks coming to Gansbaai between 2009 and 2012 and I don’t know where they are and if they’re still alive.

A student of mine counted five years later, but we need to have that published before I can put out the number, but it’s about one-fourth. Five years after my study around a quarter was left and not all of them were from the ones I counted. It’s motivating me even further to try to replace the shark nets with something else or just take them out.

White Sharks and Orcas

We had seven instances of white sharks either washing up on the beach or being recorded as being hunted by orca. But we are talking about seven sharks killed, as evidence shows. Let’s assume even 10, that is nothing compared to the by-catch and what the KZN Sharks Board is doing. The Board from 1978 to 2008, that is the only number I’ve got, captured, and killed 1,068 great whites. The Orcas didn’t do this, but the amount of mortality caused by humans is a world of difference.

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