Fishing for Tragedy

Chumming in South Africa lures great whites and sparks feud with local surfers

| posted on May 21, 2012

South African Royden Bryson, pulling in at the same spot where a fatal shark attack occurred just a month ago. Photo: Van Gysen

Last month’s fatal shark attack has reignited a long-standing feud between South African surfers, cage-diving operators and local authorities. Central to the issue is the controversial method of chumming, used to coax White sharks closer to shore. Opponents say ongoing chumming and the recent decision to allow documentary filmmakers to drop five tons of chum over a 20 day period in the waters off Cape Town, is at least partially responsible for the recent death of 20-year-old bodyboarder, David Lilienfeld, at the popular surf spot, Caves.

Caves is not what you would call a dangerous break. Nestled inside False Bay, SA, it packs a solid punch, but the slingshot wedges and shallow tubes are more skatepark than slab and have kept the local surfing community sated on a diet of quality waves for decades.

Drive past the spot today though, and you’ll be lucky to see a handful of surfers in the water. It’s barely been a month since David Lilienfeld’s death, and there is a heavy air of foreboding that still hangs over the lineup.

Lilienfeld had been enjoying the overhead wedges with his brother on April 19th, when he was attacked repeatedly by an estimated 14-foot great white. According to an eyewitness, the shark surfaced shortly after a pod of dolphins swam through the lineup. It honed straight in on Lilienfeld who tried to fight it off by pushing his bodyboard between himself and the shark. But the shark kept coming at him.

“It was like someone pushed a button to turn the sea from a clear blue to dark red, that’s how quickly he was losing blood from the wounds,” said local Matt Marais, who watched every surfer’s worst nightmare unfold from the cliff above. Lilienfeld fought valiantly, but it was useless: the shark had severed his right leg and he bled to death on the beach.

The tragedy devastated the local surf community, and re-ignited a heated standoff between Cape Town ocean users and the thriving shark cage diving industry.

“I’ve been surfing here for 19 years now, and although there was another attack a number of years ago, something just doesn’t feel right here anymore,” says Marais. “We are interfering way too much with the great whites, with chumming the waters and cage diving, and I believe this may be causing the sharks to behave unnaturally.”

False Bay and nearby Gansbaai are home to one of the largest great white populations in the world, thanks to the booming seal population there. Currently, there are 11 licensed shark cage diving businesses operating within this 60-mile stretch, with another two operators in Mossel Bay, a small coastal town a couple hundred miles away. Operators use a bloody mixture of sardines, tuna heads and fish oil to lure sharks closer to their boats so tourists can observe them from a cage lowered into the water.

Anti-chummers have long maintained that this encourages an unnatural association between sharks, humans, and the promise of food, altering the behavior of sharks and leading to more shark-human interaction. On the other hand, local shark scientists and operators refute this, claiming the amounts of chum are so small they are negligible and that no significant conditioning takes place.

The same white shark believed to be responsible for David Lilienfeld's death, taken minutes after the attack. Photo: Sven Thorsen

To put these chumming numbers into context, only two of the four licensed operators within the whole of Australia are allowed to use chum. Authorities recently withheld a license for a fifth operator because they were concerned about the impact this would have on shark behavior, according to a report on ABC News Australia.

Contrary to the opinion of South African authorities, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) of Australia believe that chumming does in fact alter great white shark behavior “quite significantly,” according to a 2011 study conducted in the Neptune Islands. CSIRO noted that sharks were residing in the area longer and moving closer to the coastline where cage diving took place.

While cage diving in Australia is confined to the remote Neptune Islands, False Bay sits in the middle of Cape Town, the second largest city in South Africa with a population of 3.5 million. A week before the attack on Lilienfeld, authorities granted an additional permit to the reality show Sharkmen, led by the controversial Chris Fischer, to conduct shark-tagging research aboard the Ocearch vessel. The research entailed great whites being hooked, sedated, hauled out of the water, measured and sampled, then tagged with electronic transmitters and released again. Researchers can then monitor and track their behavior and movements.

The Ocearch permit allowed for five tons of chum to be used over a 20-day period between False Bay and Gansbaai. The official daily chum limit is usually 55 pounds per operator. The Ocearch permit sparked public outrage after Dr. Dirk Schmidt, a wildlife photographer and author of the renowned book White Sharks, questioned why the public weren’t informed or consulted. Schmidt called for a high shark alert to be issued, saying there was a real risk of increased shark-human interaction and even potential attacks with exponentially more chum being pumped into the water.

The South African Environmental Affairs Department responded by saying a warning was unnecessary and there would be absolutely “no increased risk to the public.” But the permit was cancelled immediately after the attack on Lilienfeld, three days into filming. Fischer, authorities, and the cage diving industry came under heavy fire from the public, but denied any link between chumming and the attack. A final report issued by the City of Cape Town concluded that there was no evidence to suggest a link between chumming and the incident.

Ocearch has since been re-issued its permit and had recommenced filming in False Bay at the time of going to press, despite vocal opposition from shark conservationists and the public. Many are now calling for an all-out ban on the practice.

“The reissuing of the permit in light of substantial public concern, and without community involvement, is very disappointing,” says Schmidt. “It reflects ignorance and a blatant disregard for the needs and welfare of the ocean-using community. I would certainly be extremely cautious using False Bay waters—sharks are behaving strangely at the moment, with no sharks sighted around Seal Island for the past few weeks and many inshore sightings.”

While authorities continue to assure the public their concerns are unfounded (while excluding them from any decision making process), many surfers remain unconvinced. As lifelong False Bay local, Philip Nel says “The question that I will mull over while driving to Caves next time is not if, but to what extent the cage diving industry have already conditioned our shark population’s behavior.”

—Will Bendix

  • Barbara

    Another example of the massive corruption in the South African government, only this time with a fatal result.

  • James Poole

    Horrible…he apparently was my 3rd or 4th cousin and so i will never get to know him…I believe the attack was definitely related to chumming

  • Billy Mocean

    The news of any shark attack brings sorrow and in some cases fear to those of us who love and enter the water on an above average frequency.

    South Africa is home to some of the most enigmatic, and potentially life threatening shark species, it is also the home to a burgeoning shark diving industry as well as having a large surfing community.

    I don’t see how people can blame chumming whether for the scientific studies that go on around Seal Island in False Bay or as part of the recreational cage diving activities that take place there. In all cases chumming leads animals AWAY from the shore to the boats parked around the island.

    I do know that in south Africa though as I have been there and seen it both as a recreational diver and as a cameraman for National Geographic working on commissions in both False Bay and Aliwal Shoals that there does exist government sanctioned baiting for sharks. The Natal Sharks board practices of using baited drum lines a matter of a few hundred meters offshore from popular bathing beaches seems to be a perfectly acceptable practice for the masses. Is this due to them being told that these are preventative measures instead of commercial ventures where corporate profits are made? Who knows.

    Some people say that chumming creates a ‘conditioning’ of the sharks to associate humans with food. Are those people who are doing the chumming doing so disguised as surfers, sitting on boards? Or does a passing shark figure on hitting the ‘chummer’ when he’s least expecting it out for his afternoon surf?

    I don’t want to be seen as making light of the situation as that is not my intention.

    Sharks have been perfect in design as scavengers for hundreds of millions of years. Put a free meal in front of any top line predator against one where it would have to expend energy in order to receive the same nutritional ‘reward’ and it will 100% take the free meal. Take that meal away and instinct will immediately take control when the urge comes to feed.

    We share the oceans with a huge array of stunning animals and organisms, if the truth be told the most dangerous of which tend to be small unobtrusive shells and brightly colored tropical fish. The sad fact that when one of these larger predators decides to investigate one of us they do so using a formidable array of teeth.

    With the baiting also taking place many kilometers offshore I don’t think the blame should be laid at the feet of the shark dive industry. There are many more reasons to look towards the government backed NSB and ask them about their agenda as a fishery. They seems to be implementing increasingly dubious measures to ensure their continued entrapment of larger predatory sharks way closer than any shark dive operation would ever be allowed to operate.

    Just sayin’

  • Andrew W

    As a False Bay surfer for over 20 years, I can tell you the amount of shark-human encounters has skyrocketed. Sure, there are more people surfing and we’re also ‘looking’ for them with shark spotters, but the amount of sightings and people getting buzzed has spiked big time. I don’t think chumming is the sole reason, but until you can disprove that it’s not making sharks even 1% more curious about humans, it’s reckless practice to allow it.

  • William Da Costa Pinheiro Junior

    Same thing happens in Recife- Brazil, but instead of warnings the government treat the attacks as drownings followed by shark attacks. over 200 have already died but the official statistics are 20. last year at least 3 were found dead at the beach but as you (surfermag) published the world statistics were 0 attacks in Recife.

  • Chase

    Cape town authorities dont know the difference between their head and their ass. That country is so corrupt, you have a bunch of uneducated idiots running the place. Its sad to see that all the wonders of SA are being exploited everyday. I mean, just look at the President, the guy is a joke. Amazing country, amazing waves, and its run by people that know less than the average 6th grader.

  • Ryan

    @Billy, you obviously dont know as much as you like to think you do.
    NSB (Natal Sharks Board) run in Natal, no where near Cape Town?! When was the last time there was an attack protected by NSB?!

    Years ago they used to hold SA lifesaving champs at False Bay, it used to be one of the most swimmer friendly area’s in Cape Town, you cant do that anymore as it’s a hunting ground for Great Whites! So whats changed- it’s not like there’s a shortage of Seals!
    Do you know that a Sharks greatest sense is smell. That it can smell 1 drop of blood to a million drops water. That a 3rd of it’s brain is geared to track scent.

    And throwing tons of blood chum into the water in and around Cape Town has no affect?! Do you seriously lack that much logic?
    People have just lost a son and a friend, this is a serious problem!

  • Daniel

    @Billy “Some people say that chumming creates a ‘conditioning’ of the sharks to associate humans with food. Are those people who are doing the chumming doing so disguised as surfers, sitting on boards? Or does a passing shark figure on hitting the ‘chummer’ when he’s least expecting it out for his afternoon surf?”

    Scary comments. You photograph wild animals and then you post this. I cringe when I read posts like this one. No, sharks are not stupid. They don’t “look” for guys sitting on surfboards. They hear the drone of an outboard motor, which emits an electric current, and when the engine stops, usually it’s followed dy the smell of blood in the water. they associate that stimulus with food. Stimulus and response. Ask local fishermen in the area. Sharks are known to be “conditioned” to the areas they frequent and adapt unique hunting techniques. It’s sad that you think they are just stupid animals. They are actually not.
    “Are those people who are doing the chumming doing so disguised as surfers, sitting on boards”–I don’t have words to describe how ridiculous this comment is in the context of the article. Stick to cameras, bud.

  • Bali Sharks

    Chumming absolutely attracts sharks. Their acute sense of smell is 1 particle per million. Billy you made a few decent observations however lets add a few other realities to the equation. Couple points to consider.

    1. Chumming does attract sharks. So after attracting sharks for the so called 20 days, you have indeed created a new central hub from where the sharks will now re migrate from. Id think many came from deeper further out water & now will branch out in all directions from the hub.

    2. Most sharks will stay on the trail that was created for the past 20 days, meaning if there’s a sea breeze, currents, tides, waves action headed in towards shore, guess where the sharks are going. (how does oil & tar end up on shore) So after 20 days you have definitely scented the coastline.

    Perhaps a 1-2 hour one time deal wouldn’t be a problem. But currents and tides probably were overlooked in regards to 20 days of chumming.

  • Bali Sharks

    One last point, chumming is creating a solution that smells to attract. Once again they smell 1 particle per million. So now you’ve attrated & left a current, tidal trail of scent. the ultimate tease for the Great Whites to chase the trail where ever it runs.

    If they actually feed the sharks with fish heads, guts etc. it leaves the animals fed and satisfied.

    Actually surprised it was only 1 attack although sharks don’t actually hunt or like the smell of humans. They usually attack more curious looking for food hoping they are getting a seal or turtle. Hence the reason they never seem to finish what they started.

  • machine

    @billy have you totally lost your mind or have you always being an idiot!!

  • Arne von Delft

    Thank you for the well researched article Will! @Billy and similar skeptics: My brothers and I have been Caves locals for the past 18 years and we have literally spent thousands of hours in the notoriously shark infested waters of False Bay. 15 years ago shark sightings were rare and attacks almost unheard of. In the past ten years the amount of sightings and shark-human-encounters have increased dramatically, as verified by a host of ocean users, including lifesavers, rowers, divers and fishermen. Yes, the Great White is a protected species and their numbers have increased in this same time period, but the seal population is thriving too, so there is certainly no shortage of natural prey.
    The main problem seems to be altered behavior towards humans: by all accounts these naturally reclusive animals have become more curious and have lost their natural fear of close human contact. Now they tend to approach water craft and areas of human activity to investigate instead of retreating. Does this change in behavior sound familiar? Would anybody like to explain why there is a general ban on the feeding of any wild animals? In North America I believe you have a particular problem with bears? In Cape Town it used to be the increasingly cunning baboons only. Try taking anything even resembling food near a big Simon’s Town male and then tell me if Pavlov was wrong after all? South Africa is even better known for the Big Five and our splendid National Parks – do you think our tour operators are allowed to drag bloody carcasses behind their jeeps? Can you even imagine how it would impact on predator behavior? (Even though it would certainly bring in the dollars, Coliseum style!) Sharks may be slower learners, but we are giving them far too many lessons. I agree that there is no conclusive evidence…yet. The key here is “conclusive”. How many lives need to be lost, before this “study” of shark behavior is powered properly in statistical terms? In many regards this amounts to experimentation with humans (as bait!), which is certainly both unethical and illegal over here.
    And what if there finally was enough blood in the water to reach statistical significance? Can you then suddenly withdraw chumming and expect all these sharks to suddenly “unlearn” their conditioning? Does this approach work with bears?
    What I simply can’t understand is that people are still willing to gamble with the lives of others, when there is so clearly and publically cause for concern?

  • helmet

    Sharks are gay. Kill them all. End of argument.

  • Rick

    Sharks are gay? Whaddabout humans? 7 Billion and counting. How many gay? How many should we kill?

  • Anton

    I’m a False Bay regular, and have researched and written on the issue before. I have my own ideas on the link between chumming and attacks, but wont go into them at length here.
    Most ocean users in the area are convinced that there are more shark and human interactions and are citing chumming as the most likely cause of this. It is possible, as indicated in the Australian study, that behavioural patterns have been altered.
    But I disagree with the idea that chumming is leading to sharks to become more aggressive or curious. The Australian study makes no reference to potential impact on human safety, and is only concerned with the impact on shark well-being and ecology. I find it strange that the so-called nanny state would overlook this. Despite this glaring omission, people here have seized it to point out that our own scientists have it wrong. The anti-chumming lobby here is still unable to find anyone qualified on the topic, either locally or abroad, to actually support their position. On face value, the Australian study appears to, but when gone into in depth, it does not.
    But, still, other things need to be considered.
    There are other more sublte, long term causes that are being overlooked. Firstly, the ecology of the bay has changed. Kelp, which typically favours colder waters outside the bay, used to only be found as far inside as Smitswinkel near Cape Point. When I was told this in 2010, the new benchmark was St James. a few weeks later, though, i saw kelp growing at Strandfontein – nearly at the top of the bay. This tells us that the water temperature in the bay has changed and is most likely climate driven. This will affect everything in the food web and it is quite possible that it is influencing shark movements as well.
    The other aspect to consider is management. Both sharks and seals used to be openly hunted, but this has changed. We know there are more seals, but shark numbers are harder to come by. Chris Fallows, a well known photographer at Seal Island, reckons there are fewer and smaller sharks at there, but there are other possible reasons for this than an outright decline. It is possible that offshore feeding opportunities have been dimimished due to overfishing, or that the inshore protected areas have become more attractive either to seals and sharks.
    There was recently a small fracas between artisanal beach-seine netters and surfers at muizenberg – a popular learners beach in the bay. They were fishing, quite legally in an area that doesn’t often see fish shoaling. It’s shows an unusual pattern. This was a few weeks before the attack, and already observers were noting an atypical trend.
    More recently, the bay has been graced with super-pods of dolphins and packs of Orcas hunting them. Incidentaly, or not, we now know that the sharks have left the bay – mostly thanks to Ocearch’s efforts. Orcas were extremely rare in the bay until a few years ago. Now, they’re an almost annual sighting.
    Apart from the wonder of having so much wildlife in the ocean where we surf, these trends are signatures of a macro-shift in the biology False Bay. They should not be overlooked when searching reasons for an increase in shark-human encounters.

  • Jamie Garner

    It is a sad state of affirs! I went to the public shark hearing after the recent attack. It seemed that the scientists/researchers were more concerned with being published and achieving recongnitation about their research, then actual research, just another ego driven TV show, i think we have enough of those already! They clearly disregarded public opinion and safety! Their methods of tagging have also been proven to hurt and damage the sharks. After the ocearchs arrival and tagging of sharks at seal island, all the sharks left and headed towards shore, obviously unhappy with being caught and metal plates drilled into their backs! (one shark actually died from this at the beginning of ocearchs “research”) A clearer definition of research needs to be defined for these scientists.
    Another problem is the shark cage industry claiming they are boosting our tourism with shark tours. What about the increase in shark attacks? This makes people more fearful to come to our country and have a swim here! What about the damge to the surfing industry from an increase in shark attacks and sitings? What does the shark cage industry give back to shark conservation? Do they donate any funds to the shark spotter programme or are they just filling their wallets?
    We as surfers, ocean lovers and protectors of the oceans need to come together so that we can be heard and make changes happen! It was sad that at the shark hearing i met only one other surfer, and yet so many of us feel passionatly about this issue. The surfing industry and the large heavy weight surfer brands need to give support to us surfers, ie Zigzag, Billabong, Quicksilver etc and not just sit quietly by the way side while we support them through our purchases.
    Time to step up!!!

  • sugarbean

    just pointing out a few factual ummmm errrrs:

    sorry but had to giggle at this: “False Bay sits in the middle of Cape Town, the second largest city in South Africa with a population of 3.5 million”
    really? huh?
    not exactly in the middle of Cape Town.
    i live in Cape Town sometimes, and on the False Bay side sometimes.
    They are about 35 km’s apart at the closests point (Muizenberg).. and Cape Town is not really even on the same ocean.

    As one who was vehemently opposed to Ocearch, their cruel methodologies (as seen in the disgusting “shark men” nat geo shows) and concerned about the chumming… correction:
    Ocearch chummed 15th and 16th April – the fatal attack (RIP David) was on the 19th April. SO.. not 1 week later -as the article states.. just a few days apart. (hence my friend Dr Schmidt saying it would’ve been prudent for the city/government to have put out an advisory alert).

    & the project “..entailed great whites being hooked, sedated..”
    ah, nope they didnt “sedate” the sharks at all they fought & EXHAUSTED them (hence my ire at the animal cruelty but a big game hunter in my back yard!).

    you have quoted my friend Dirk Schmidt correctly 🙂

    and @Chase.. thats a bit harsh “Amazing country, amazing waves, and its run by people that know less than the average 6th grader.”
    lol. maybe half true.
    and ja, i SERIOUSLY question how the likes of a big-game angler (Chris Fischer) and a supposed (not really) conservation group like Ocearch got a permit FOR FREE in SA?!?
    something smelt and does smell fishy for sure.


  • Will B

    Hi Sugarbean, thanks for the input.

    Re: the factual error, not sure where you’re reading ‘a week later’, but the article clearly says: “But the permit was cancelled immediately after the attack on Lilienfeld, three days into filming.” Ocearch officially started baiting and filming on the Monday, attack was on the Wednesday.

    Re: False Bay not being in the middle of Cape Town, well, that’s debatable depending on which side of the mountain you live. The Cape Flats into the False Bay suburbs has the highest population density of CT, and they all border directly on False Bay. Either way, it’s semantics: the point is there are numerous shark chumming operations in direct proximity of a very populated area, where thousands of people use the ocean for recreation every day. Compare this to Oz, where the authorities are at pains to ensure chumming is restricted to two operators, and only allowed in a very remote area.

    re: The sharks not being sedated, thanks for setting the record straight. I was informed by an expert they were sedated before being hauled out the water. Even more reason why the whole affair is questionable. Cheers.

  • Ross

    I have some amazing memories of surfing the False Bay coast in the mid 90’s, when in Cape Town as an exchange student. Where else in the world can you leave the city and scope the surf on the train with multiple spots / stops in close proximity, and finish a session and paddle over to the pub to get out.

    It is such a tragedy that multiple attacks, some fatal, still haven’t been enough proof for some that these operations are a terrible idea. Common sense dictates that you would error on the side of caution for public safety. It doesn’t take a research grant and proof to know its a foolish idea to do something like; bait bears or lions down the street from a school.

    Those attack victims don’t care about the proof, and neither do I. They will never come back to life, and I doubt I’ll be back there to surf like I always hoped I would

  • http://SouthernCalandNorthBaja-landlordsightings George

    In the North Coast of Baja (Mexico), there are some Tuna ranches or farms (+15) located North of Ensenada. On a pen are kept hundreds of Tunas to be export/sell for the Asian Market, which creates jobs and help the economy down there. Hundreds of tunas swirl inside, while they get fed from the top with greasy sardins. Anyone Chumming?? That’s the reason why we change the name of the spot from “Salsipuedes” to “Shark point”, which is 300 yards away from the pens in deep water. I’m really sure white sharks come down to visit us and check all the frenzy tunas and chumming going on. I think it should be a White Shark Study on place in that area. I mean we are not going to change the business or the shark migration down there, but to evaluate is that’s changing our landlord’s migration patterns. Cheers!