Drum lines part of life in South Africa for 50 years

Closer look: Tourists and students examine a shark. Picture: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

As the sun rises over Kwazulu-Natal's rugged coastline and Durban's city beaches, small yellow boats launch into the surf and head towards lines of buoys offshore.

In the dawn light, crews begin the laborious task of hoisting up 320m-long nets and drum lines to see how many animals got trapped overnight.

It has been part of the South African province's daily life for 50 years.

Shark culling has become so normal in Kwazulu-Natal that the public and groups of schoolchildren have visited the Sharks Board almost daily for years, to see caught sharks being dissected.

And drum lines will be part of life in WA for at least the next three years if the State Government gets environmental approval.

There have been no fatal shark attacks, and only two non-fatal bites, at the 38 protected beaches in Kwazulu-Natal since nets and drum lines were installed.

Kwazulu-Natal Sharks Board head of operations Mike Anderson-Reade said there was no doubt the measures worked.

"We've got to get the balance right," he said. "We take the number of sharks necessary before an attack occurs."

The number of dangerous sharks - great white, tiger and bull sharks - caught by nets and drum lines is dwarfed by the number of harmless sharks and other marine life.

Data from 2012-13, the latest available, reveals 22 great whites were caught (six were released), as well as 48 tiger sharks (27 released) and nine bull sharks (one released).

In the same year, 91 dusky sharks, 72 spinner sharks, 76 turtles, seven humpback whales, 23 dolphins, 35 manta rays and numerous other species were also caught.

Unlike under the WA policy, the South African shark catchers do not kill any of the creatures caught in nets and drum lines, but release them 5km out to sea.

However, around one-fifth of sharks and half of other marine life are already dead when they are found.

Lifeguard Gerald Holland, who works at the popular Scottburgh beach south of Durban, said there was a huge public misconception about the nets.

"They don't know that sharks can get around the net," he said.

"They think it's a barrier around the bay."

Fellow lifeguard Ricardo Harilal said people often asked him if there was shark gear at Scottburgh beach.

"It gives them a sense of security," he said. "I personally don't think the nets are even necessary because there are always sharks out there. We see dolphins swimming parallel to the nets but they don't get caught."

In recent years, the Kwazulu-Natal Sharks Board has been replacing nets with 79 drum lines on the province's south coast.

A series of fatal shark attacks in the 1950s - five deaths in 107 days - prompted the authorities to do all they could at the time to erect nets at beaches.

The eradication of fatal attacks in the decades since has inspired public confidence and reliance on nets to keep them safe.

But there is opposition to the use of lethal measures 60 years later. Surfer and former lifeguard Olivia Symcox, who is part of campaign group Shark Angels, believes nets are archaic and outdated.

"There certainly was a place for shark nets back in the 50s," she said.

"Obviously they needed to take measures to prevent KZN losing tourism and visitors. That I can understand. But things have changed. There are far less sharks in the water locally.

"It's certainly time to rethink nets and try to find more viable solutions."

Mr Anderson-Reade said the Sharks Board and scientists were constantly working on finding a non-lethal alternative to shark nets and drum lines.

"I think it's very important for Western Australia to get some scientists on board so that they monitor what they are taking out," he said.

"If you're going to convince anybody, or change their minds, you have to do it with scientifically backed up data."