Predictors of white shark Carcharodon carcharias presence at two recreational beaches in a major metropole

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The presence of white sharks Carcharodon carcharias in False Bay, South Africa follows a clear seasonal cycle. In the austral winter months, white sharks aggregate around Seal Island with female sharks in particular moving to the inshore areas in summer. What triggers these fine scale migrations at one of the largest white shark aggregation sites in the world remains a subject of debate. Previous research identified the environmental variables, water temperature and lunar phase, as significant influences on white shark presence inshore. In this study, I attempt to investigate the influence of prey fish availability on the presence of white sharks at two inshore areas of False Bay, namely Muizenberg and Fish Hoek. In addition, I explored the influence of sea surface temperature (SST), El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), dolphin presence, diatom patch presence and the occurrence of purse-seine fishing (treknetting) on shark presence. A total of 1209 shark sightings were recorded from 1 January 2006 - 31 December 2015 with 742 sightings at Muizenberg and 467 at Fish Hoek. I used randomization tests to determine whether the occurrence of shark sightings was randomly distributed across the environmental and biological variables and determined the dependencies between the predictor variables. I confirmed that shark sightings were clearly seasonal and sightings peaked between 17.49 - 18.57°C. Fish presence revealed a similar peak at 17.94°C. Randomization tests indicate that a spotter is 66% more likely to detect a shark when fish are present, which supports my prediction of a prey mediated cue. The occurrence of treknetting was also found to be non-randomly linked to white shark presence, increasing the probability to spot a shark to 38% instead of 20% at random. The presence of diatom patches was found to be negatively correlated with SST; with numbers increasing in colder waters. The presence of dolphins, as other predators in False Bay, didn't show a significant pattern with any of the analysed variables. The influence of ENSO on the presence of white sharks was also hypothesized and the data revealed that there was a significant influence of weak negative ENSO values on their inshore occurrence. In addition to providing a better understanding of the ecology of white sharks in False Bay, my results can also be used in shark safety and education programs to reduce the risk of shark human conflict.