Shark-deterrent technology developed by a team from Stellenbosch University is now being tested of the coast of La Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean.
The Shark Safe Barrier™ is the most advanced shark-specific deterrent technology currently available that do not injure or kill sharks and other marine animals, while keeping surfers and swimmers safe.
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The technology has been in development for the past seven years by SU's Dr Sara Andreotti and Professor Conrad Matthee, in collaboration with well-known conservationist Michael Rutzen, Dr Craig O'Connel from the USA and South African coastal engineer Laurie Barwell. The team combined two well-known aspects of shark biology, their natural dislike of dense kelp-forests and their sensitivity to magnetic fields, to come up with a barrier that will physically separate sharks and people from each other.
In practice it consists of several rows of staggered high-density polyethylene pipes that are positioned one meter apart on the sea bed in order to imitate a dense kelp forest. The ocean-facing row contains large ceramic magnets, creating a strong magnetic field to further deter the sharks from entering.
The concept has been piloted and tested in the stormy waters of Gansbaai, regarded as the mecca of great white sharks in South Africa. During the two years of trials not a single shark have entered an artificially-created kelp barrier of 169 square meters, even though tempted with fish bait and chum.
Invention to be tested outside South African waters for the first time
In 2014 the Shark Safe Barrier™ was commercialized with the help of SU's technology transfer company, Innovus.
Now its chief operating officer, Dr Andreotti was approached in 2017 by La Réunion's Shark Risk Management Centre to test their invention's effectiveness with bull sharks in the Indian Ocean.
“During January and February 2019 we installed a 100 square meter barrier of the coast of Saint-Paul. Twice a week, chum and fish bait are released in the middle of the square by Reunion researchers to lure sharks. The structure has already formed an artificial reef and has become a refuge for local fish, but so far, no sharks has approached the enclosure," she says.
The field test will be completed after the Réunion team has recorded interactions with at least 20 bull sharks.
Between 2007 and 2016, this surfers' paradise has seen seven fatal and 14 non-fatal shark incidents, with a subsequent drop in tourist bookings of 40% after each of these unfortunate events.
“In 2014 tourists totaled almost half of the population on the island. But today the authorities warn residents and tourists to stay out of the water" says Andreotti.
If successful, the installation of the Shark Safe Barrier™ along this popular coastline could mean a turn-around for the island's ailing tourism industry.
But, more importantly, it could also mean a turn-around for the oceans' threatened shark populations.
“Between 2011 and 2016, there have been 491 registered shark attacks worldwide, of which 43 proved fatal. Meanwhile, thousands of sea creatures have been killed by getting entangled in shark nets, or fished by drumlines," Andreotti says.
Crowdfunding for one more test
The team is currently working on improving the robustness of the Shark Safe Barrier™ technology by adapting the anchorage system to better secure the pipes on sandy sea beds. It then needs to be exposed to real sea condition for one more time.
For this exercise, the team plans to raise $24 000 through the crowdfunding platform Thundafund at https://www.thundafund.com/project/sharksafebarrier
If this last test is successful, the Shark Safe Barrier invention is one step closer to be rolled-out to beaches all over the world, to the benefit of both humans and the oceans' marine animals, Andreotti concludes.
Dr Sara Andreotti
Cell: 27(0)72 321 9198