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'Curtains of death': Nets designed to protect swimmers are killing sharks in South Africa

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Divers from the Blue Ocean Dive Resort swims with black-tip sharks and other fishes during a baited shark dive in Umkomaas near Durban, South Africa, on December 10, 2020
Divers from the Blue Ocean Dive Resort swims with black-tip sharks and other fishes during a baited shark dive in Umkomaas near Durban, South Africa, on December 10, 2020   -   Copyright  MICHELE SPATARI/AFP or licensors
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Steven Spielberg's 1975 thriller "Jaws" helped convince the public that sharks were human flesh-eaters, prowling the shallow waters of the world's beaches looking for lunch.

As a result, the provincial tourist industry set out to keep sharks away from skittish beachgoers in South Africa, lining 37 beaches with nets for 300 kilometres north and south of Durban.

But shark divers have warned that the nets are "basically curtains of death", trapping and killing all kinds of marine life, sharks included.

"They're a passive system that has been put in the water and everything that puts its head in that net dies," said shark diver Walter Bernardis.

Figures suggest the predators rarely strike humans, regardless of whether they are separated by nets, and conservationists now want the measures to be reconsidered.

Despite the fact that only around 100 shark attacks are reported each year, humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually, according to scientific findings published in 2013.

Scientists and conservationists stress that the animals are important for the ecosystem and key to regulating marine populations.

They also note that shark barriers are barely effective, especially against large species.

In fact, divers have noticed that most animals can swim under the mesh, which is only six-metres deep, and often get stuck on their way back from the shoreline, rather than on the way in.

Nets and drum lines give swimmers a "false" sense of security and signal "to people that sharks are dangerous", said Jean Harris, head of South African conservation group Wild Oceans.

What needs to change, she added, is "people's minds".