You can usually tell if new ‘research’ is a money making scam by the following criteria:
- Research conducted by foreigners
- Big PR/marketing campaign
- The only supporting research is published in low-ranking/little known journals
- The study gained several high profile sponsors and then lost them all
- Supporting research was done by the people who own the patents
I’ll let the readers decide if this is what’s happening to the latest ‘shark deterrent’ system being tested here, in Shark Alley’s home town.
All the latest press releases about SharkSafe have heralded it as the world’s first eco-friendly shark deterrent. The magnetic tubes of plastic mimic kelp which repels sharks, and there is no bycatch! The research shows that sharks did not swim through the plastic tubes that were based in Shark Alley. Sound too good to be true?
The SharkSafe plastic debris is a single line of tubes in the corner of the alley. It does not act as a barrier at all, but merely a bunch of plastic junk that the sharks swim around. Thus, anyone could have achieved these same ‘results’ by putting, say, wooden poles in Shark Alley or a chain of blow up dolls or just ropes. Of course the sharks don’t swim through it, why would they?
How about a hypothetical example… Lets say I want to create a human barrier, something I can deploy that will repel humans from specific areas. To test this, I will go to one of the busiest sidewalks in New York City and put three steel poles in the middle of it. Indeed, you will see that no humans will cross through the steel, because they will walk around it. Does this mean steel poles repel humans? No. Although simplistic, this is actually the design of the SharkSafe tests in Shark Alley. Their 'results' are that sharks didn’t swim through the plastic, thus it is a deterrent - make the patents! But actually, it was never tested as a barrier. What this study does unequivocally prove is that sharks are capable of ignoring man-made bullshit no matter how much funding went into building it. How dare they!
What would be a better test in my human example? Say I put a line of these steel poles outside of a Wal-Mart before a Black Friday sale. The humans are drawn to the area for a reason, but my barrier lies between them and their goal. As countless Youtube videos show, this barrier does not work. SharkSafe has not tried a similar study where sharks are motivated to cross through a barrier that they can't simply swim around. If you read the research, they say they used bait to motivate the sharks, but I talk about that at the end of the blog...
So, why would a group of ‘researchers’ push such a massive PR campaign even though the research actually hasn’t been done? Read between the lines! The plastic debris tubes have been patented by the University of Stellenbosch. The ‘researchers’ estimate it would cost the City of Cape Town R10 million to deploy a SharkSafe barrier to protect Muizenberg bathers, which is what they are pushing for. Clear now? This appears to be following in the wake of the Shark Shield gold rush i.e. a PR campaign before legit research, so by the time real researchers can do the work, the public are already sold on an empty promise and the 'researchers' have moved on to the next town with their shark cure.
And then I could get petty. I won’t delve into the politics I suspect are at work in this study as it involves Shark Defence, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, and the Shark ‘Man’ Mike Rutzen. I also don't understand how a geneticist can be the scientific advisor of what is clearly a behavioural project (unless he's the one holding the patent...). You can expect further blogs for the SharkSafe Saga as more of this comes to light. I will, however, delve into my personal observations of this plastic pollution cum shark deterrent.
I like Craig, I’ve met him once and he seems nice, but I think he’s suffering from a classic case of someone who hasn’t spent enough time physically at their study site. Like every other group of foreign researchers, these guys come out a few times a year for a few weeks and then go back home, missing out on the rest of the season’s picture. I do believe if Craig had spent as much time as I have in Shark Alley looking at those plastic tubes, he wouldn’t be so quick to push all this press (but that is entirely dependent on his motivations). I have seen sharks take seals next to the tubes, I have seen sharks bite off the sardine oil cans they hung from the tubes to attract sharks to it, I have seen sharks eat the buoys that were once attached to the rigging. Of course, I cannot prove if any of the SharkSafe team had similar observations, but I don't doubt that if they have, they've left Craig in the dark intentionally.
Also, this thing got ripped apart by the winter storms even though it was in the most sheltered area, so how could a SharkSafe deployment ever be logistically feasible? The costs to keep repairing it would be astronomica-oh snap! It’s the American car company of shark deterrents- ingenious!
So what’s my answer then? I have recently learned about a 100% effective way to forecast shark presence in South Africa and how to eliminate your chances of shark encounter. Step 1: Go to the shore and stick your finger in the water and then stick this finger in your mouth, if it tastes salty then there are sharks there. Step 2: If you’re not prepared to meet one, stay on the beach.