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The government, panicked by the effect the recent shark attacks have had on tourism, is damaging the ecological balance in the South Sinai coastal region, as well as tourism, charge Sharm experts and divers
Leading figures in the Sharm El-Sheikh’s diving community are accusing the government of embarking on an indiscriminate shark hunt, that is considerably wider in scope than what has been announced.
The divers have launched a facebook group and are circulating an online petition, calling on the authorities to “stop shark genocide in Sharm.”
“They killed eight sharks in an area of 10 square kilometers,” Dr. Amr Aboulfat’h, director of the Aquamarine Diving And Water Sports Club, told Ahram Online. “Four were killed by the National Park Authorities, and four were killed by the National Institute for Oceanography and Fisheries (NIOF).”
Another source, who requested anonymity, elaborated that four of these sharks have been sighted on Travco Jetty and were later handed over to Alexandria’s NIOF last Monday.
Ahram Online contacted the South Sinai governor’s office, National Park Authorities, and the NIOF. All vehemently denied the allegations, and insisted that only two sharks have been killed.
Following two shark-attacks that left three foreign tourists seriously injured and one dead, on 30 November and 1 December, the government launched a shark hunt. Though an Oceanic Whitetip shark was initially blamed for the attack, the authorities paraded the photos of two sharks they had killed, one of which was a Mako, on 2 December.
“Who decided that it was one shark initially, and then two? And now more? And how come an authority that is responsible for protecting marine life assume the responsibility of such slaughter,” exclaimed Dr. Aboulfat’h.
The hunt was criticized by the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association and the Chamber of Diving and Water Sports, both of which also objected to the full closure of beaches and water sports decreed by the South Sinai governor immediately after the second attack.
“The closure of the beaches was not a smart decision,” said Dr. Aboulfat’h. “If the sharks attack snorkelers, why ban diving? Why ban glass-boats and submarines? The government helped in blowing up this sensationalist scare, and ruined the tourism season even more.”
Most beaches were back in business on 14 December. Diving and most water sports resumed, with restrictions on snorkeling, but the ban on water skiing and the use of banana boats continued.
General Ahmad Saleh, the South Sinai governor’s secretary, said in a phone interview that measures are already in effect to protect the tourists from any potential shark attacks in the open beaches.
“There are watchtowers now with professional lifeguards monitoring any movements by sharks in the water,” General Saleh said. “Zodiacs are also patrolling the area, on the look out for any danger. We are surveying the area, and studying best places to install nets to keep out the sharks.”
But, “What will the towers do?” exclaimed Dr. Aboulfat’h. “Someone sitting on top with binoculars, what will he be able to see? How can he even distinguish between sharks and other species of fish which also have fins?”
Moreover, Dr. Aboulfat’h dismissed the idea of the protective nets, which the authorities plan to put in place around beaches, saying they can only work in the extended shallow waters of the Mediterranean, but not in he Red Sea, and in all cases they pose a great environmental danger as they tend to prevent turtles and big fish from moving in their habitat, upsetting the ecological balance in the area.
Neither was Dr. Sherif Fattouh, of the NIOF, enthusiastic about the idea. “Erecting fences is one of the solutions, but it has to be studied very carefully,” he said. “It can damage the corals in the area, and it’s impossible to fence off the entire eight kilometers where the attacks took place.”
Despite differences in views on the government’s handling of the shark attacks, there is general agreement that the solution has to be long term.
“The tourists have to stop feeding the fish. They think it’s cute to throw crumbs of bread and leftovers to the small fish, but small fish will attract the big ones including sharks,” said Dr. Fattouh.
“Heavy fines and penalties have to be imposed on ships that dump food and leftovers into the sea. Now when sharks see boats, they start following them because they know there will be food.”
Mohamed Salem of the National Park Authorities, for his part, asserted that there will be stricter monitoring of any form of fish feeding in South Sinai, and awareness raising will start from the moment the tourists get on the plane. “We are preparing DVDs to be shown on board airplanes heading for Sharm, to raise tourists awareness of activities unfriendly to the region’s environment.”
Dr. Aboulfat’h, who has been part of the Sharm diving scene for the past two decades, fears much damage has been done already, but it’s not too late to remedy it.
“I don’t want to see the day when my children will ask me what sharks are, what dugongs are, what turtles are. If we don’t act now to stop the onslaught on our Red Sea then in few years time the sea will have been transformed into a swimming pool.”