South Africa man poses with illegally caught great white shark

The following report and accompanying photos were provided by Cassie Heil of Oceans Research. The report involves a fisherman catching a protected great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) at Beacon Point in South Africa’s Mossel Bay. The shark was eventually returned to the water by Ryan Johnson, an Oceans Research scientist. Thanks to Ms. Heil and Oceans Research for sharing this story, and kudos to Johnson for his efforts to return the protected shark back into the water.

A fisherman poses with a legally protected great white shark at South Africa's Mossel Bay.
(photo courtesy of Oceans Research)

Man Illegally Catches a great white shark in Mossel Bay
Press release – 16th October, 2011: Mossel Bay

On Friday 14th October 2011, Oceans Research received a phone call from local members of the community regarding an incident that was taking place at Beacon Point in Mossel Bay. A fisherman was in the process of catching a great white shark and was hauling it onto the rocks. In South Africa, the white shark is a protected species, and if one is inadvertently hooked then it must be immediately released.

Ryan Johnson, a scientist from Oceans Research rushed down to the location to discover the fisherman still had the shark out of the water; was making no effort to return it to the water and was instead posing for photographs being taken by his two companions. Simultaneously, Oceans Research scientist, Enrico Gennari, telephoned the local fisheries inspector from the Department of Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), who assured Gennari that he was going to make his way to the location to investigate (the DAFF offices are situated less than 1 kilometer from the fishing location).

A white shark is hauled onto the rocks at Beacon Point in South Africa's Mossel Bay.
(photo courtesy of Oceans Research)

On arrival, Ryan Johnson confronted the fisherman and informed him that he was breaking the law, that the great white is a protected species, and asked the fisherman to move away from the shark to enable Johnson to return it to the Ocean. Assisted by a member of the community, Johnson returned the shark to the water by waiting for large enough swells to arrive and take some of the shark’s weight. Following release into the water, the shark rolled onto its side, righted itself, bumped into a rock and swam out of sight. It is impossible to know whether the shark will survive this ordeal.

Following the incidence, Johnson and the fisherman, believed to be from George argued passionately. When asked whether he knew that fishing great whites was illegal, the fisherman responded “so what, you (Johnson) drink and drive, everyone does things illegal so what is the big deal?”

The fisherman then started to pack up his equipment and move it to his car with the aid of the two young men. This equipment included a kayak, which presumably was used to paddle out and place the massive baits and tackle, as they were too large to cast. The entire fishing set up was designed to catch very large sharks, and it was clear that the fisherman’s intent was to target and catch white sharks, a protected species.

Johnson waited at the site for 20 minutes whilst the fishers packed up and left. Unfortunately no compliance officer arrived by the time that the fishers left. When Oceans Research attempted to telephone the inspector again, his cell phone was off and as far as is known, he never arrived at the scene of the offence.

In the past four years Oceans Research has routinely identified fishermen targeting and catching white sharks in Mossel Bay. During almost every public holiday, fishermen from Cape Town and other major metros appear in the small Mossel Bay community armed with the latest shark fishing kit and place massive hooks and bait in areas known to be congregation sites for white sharks. Whilst fishing used to occur in the evenings and early morning when detection would be unlikely, in recent years the lack of any enforcement has resulted in fishing becoming increasingly brazen. According to the Mossel Bay community, people like this fisherman bring shame to the recreational angling sport as they act in a non-professional manner, and isolate themselves from the majority of the angling community which recognise the importance of these apex predators in the marine ecosystem.

South Africa has a proud history of conserving and responsibly managing white sharks. However, in recent years, the increase in sport fishing for sharks has resulted in an increase in the targeting for this protected species. Whilst many sport fishing clubs are dedicated to fishing responsibly and within the laws, rogue fisherman routinely target and catch great whites in South Africa. To date not one reported incident has ever led to a prosecution. Why is that? Ryan Johnson believes that it is related to legislation. “The difficulty in prosecuting and investigating such cases, is that fisherman officially claim that they are not targeting white sharks (when questioned) despite unofficially admitting they are targeting white sharks in social media sites such as Facebook. Despite being equipped with tackle designed to capture sharks as large as white sharks, fishing in locations that are known great white aggregation sites, the authorities claim that ‘intent’ cannot be sufficiently established to lead to a successful prosecution”. He also notes that “Despite law stating that fishermen inadvertently hooking white sharks must cut them free as soon as they are identified, the fishermen in question refuse to do this as they claim it is more responsible to land the shark, take the hook out and then release it (after taking a bunch of snap shots) – It is a very convenient loop-hole for rogue fishermen”.

What occurs in an environment where there are no consequences for breaking environmental laws? People believe they have a free reign and thus ignore legislation. So, are white sharks protected in South Africa? If protection extends only to the signing of legislation, then yes. If protection means actually keeping white sharks safe in South Africa, then the answer is no, they are not adequately protected. Without immediate action against this practise, South Africa’s reputation for responsible environmental policy is in danger of being eroded. We are the ambassadors of one of the oceans most iconic yet vulnerable species; it is time for us to seize this responsibility.

Oceans Research would like to thank the concerned members of the Mossel Bay community who reported this incident to Oceans Research and assisted in the release of the shark. White sharks are a unique natural asset that adds significant value to Mossel Bay, it is up to residents to ensure that our environmental integrity is protected. We would urge for anyone who witnesses this behaviour in the future to contact Oceans Research and local authorities immediately. Oceans Research can be reached by phoning 044 690 5799 or contacting the local DAFF inspectors.


  1. Mike, Northampton, Ma says:

    I honestly don’t understand the mind set…same people here in the states that would also do this…
    I think there are many more white sharks than the science community are saying though…we saw 2 this in New Hampshire, and one juvenile in long Island sound just out on the boat for the day…they are making a big comeback fast.

  2. Petrus Viviers says:

    Dear Sir/Mam

    I find a lot of half truths and many lies in your article. I have been fishing since a youngster and my grandfathers tackle was a penn 12/0 Which he harnessed himself onto and the baits was set by kite. In the 22 years I fished for sharks with him we never hooked up one Great White …

    Secondly – the Great White was never so prevalent amongst shark fisherman because of the nature of its hunting habits. According to available literature to the public White Sharks should only future this coast line between December and March of the size in specie that would tangle with anglers.(Third Edition Common Sea Fishes) If their hunting/feeding habits has changed the reason should be addressed not the anglers. They spend much more money on grass root level than any high profile cage diver.

    Thirdly – Mr Bekker is a shark fishing novice with a point to ponder on. Was Dr Johnsons breath reeking with alcohol? … If so why was he driving?

    Dr Ryan Johnson has been evading the question of Identifying a GW in the wash zone for two weeks now. All recreational anglers will gladly cut a GW loose if they can identify it as one. This might be the reason why this shark got tangled up with Mr Bekkers trace, which was rigged with squid at the time of entanglement.

    Let us be guided by fact and not emotional aggravated by fiction. We all know Paul Watsons take on the matter … “due to the nature of mass media the truth is irrelevant”

    • Kristen Williams says:

      The fact of the matter is great whites are protected by the South African government and two wrongs don’t make a right. If Dr. Ryan Johnson chose to drink and drive then that was he own bad decision, but do you even know if he did… no you don’t. You’re just going off your own assumption that he was. Again, even if the Dr. had a shot too many, the man and his sons had no right to be fishing for a PROTECTED fish anyways. Common sense… try it on sometime.

      • Tee Walsh says:

        I have much love and respect for white sharks and strongly support that they are a protected species and should not be harmed. However, I could not help but notice the assumptions present in the article as well as in Ms. Williams’ response, which I believed to be unnecessarily disrespectful. The big assumption is that the fisherman was specifically fishing for white sharks. We should not attack other people based on our own assumptions. Ms. Williams pointed out that Mr. Viviers was assuming that Mr. Johnson had been drinking and driving and then suggested he has no common sense for doing so. Yet she also assumed the fisherman was fishing for a protected species. If assuming something results in Mr. Viviers having no common sense then where does that leave Ms. Williams for assuming something else? Furthermore, what is even more disturbing is her attitude towards the possibility of someone drinking and driving. Although I respect and support preserving and protecting the white shark’s life, I support protecting human life even more so from the many dangers and loss of life caused by drinking and driving. A decision to drink and drive is not someone’s “own bad decision” because it affects so many others in devastating and tragic ways. Again, all of this is based on two different assumptions. Regardless of whether both, one or none of these assumptions are true, two assumptions do not give us the right to attack anyone. Please everyone let’s just respect ALL life.

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