Beach visitors’ perceptions of shark hazard mitigation in South Africa: implications for shark conservation
Van der Westhuizen, J.
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Sharks are very important species in the marine ecosystem; however, they face several threats. One of these includes lethal shark hazard mitigation. Shark hazard mitigation strategies are normally adopted on popular recreational beaches around the world to prevent encounters of humans with sharks in the water. Beach visitors (ocean users and non-users) are the user group directly affected by this management technique. It is necessary to understand their perceptions of sharks and shark hazard mitigation, as this can have implications for shark conservation. The goal of the present research was partly to address this very necessity. Three objectives were set for this purpose. These were to conduct a literature study in relation to the goal of the study, which focussed on different topics related to sharks, human-shark interactions, shark hazard mitigation, and the depiction of sharks by the media (shark framing); to perform quantitative research on beach visitors’ perceptions of sharks and shark hazard mitigation, paying attention to the socio-demographic and geographic variability of perceptions; and to use the results to make useful recommendations concerning management of recreational beaches and, importantly, concerning shark conservation. The study was conducted in South Africa, which is known for adopting lethal and non-lethal shark hazard mitigation strategies on popular recreational beaches. The study followed a quantitative, descriptive, non-experimental design using a structured questionnaire as the measuring instrument, targeting 1 138 people visiting five beaches in South Africa. The beaches adopted lethal, non-lethal and sporadically non-lethal (mixed) shark hazard mitigation strategies. The questionnaire comprised mainly close-ended questions on demography, water use, and perceptions of sharks, human-shark interactions, shark hazard mitigation and shark framing. The data collected were captured in Microsoft Excel and then analysed using Statsoft Statistica and IBM SPSS. The results showed that perceptions of sharks and shark hazard mitigation varied across different socio-demographic groups (variation was assessed using descriptive statistics, correlations (rs) and, t-tests). They also showed that perceptions of sharks and shark hazard mitigation varied geographically (variation was assessed using descriptive statistics, cross tabulations, and ANOVAs), and that this geographic variation tended to reflect the type of shark hazard mitigation adopted at specific beaches under study. A factor analysis performed on Likert-scale items from the questionnaire identified three categories of beach visitors’ perceptions (factors) including: Knowledge (of sharks), Media (framing), and Interactions (human-shark). Overall, the results confirmed that beach visitors had positive attitudes towards sharks and, while perceptions of shark hazard mitigation were variable, visitors could be disposed to favour strategies to mitigate encounters with sharks that are non-invasive to sharks. The recommendations of the study are made for recreational beach managers, scientists, academics, practitioners, decision makers, the government, the media, and the general public with a focus on beach visitors. Some important recommendations include more and better education of recreational beach users concerning sharks and concerning the detrimental effects of lethal shark control on these vulnerable yet ecologically critical species; and the promotion of non-lethal shark control to preserve recreational popularity of beaches.