Reunion Island has been rocked by a number of shark attacks in recent years, but now a new high-tech magnetic shark barrier wants to change that.
Between 2007 and 2016, the island had 21 attacks, seven of which were fatal, which is very high when you consider that the coastline is only around 207 kilometres in total.
Enter the SharkSafe Barrier, which is being applauded as both an effective and non-harmful way of keeping sharks away from humans, and uses magnets and a fake kelp forest to deter sharks.
Here are some of the basics via Business Insider:
Sharks are able to detect magnetic fields, thanks to sensory organs called ampullae of Lorenzini in their heads. These ampullae are a highly sensitive network of tiny jelly-filled pores that allow sharks to sense electromagnetic changes.
In waters off Gansbaai in the Western Cape, there was a 15m by 15m square circumscribed by a SharkSafe Barrier that no shark has crossed in the two years of testing — even though there was food inside it.
“In all the years of experiment, they never crossed it,” says Sara Andreotti, one of the inventors. And it wasn’t just great white sharks, but also bull, tiger, and hammerhead sharks.
The start-up, SharkSafe Barrier Pty Ltd, is being spun out of Stellenbosch University, thanks to R1-million in seed funding from the Technology Innovation Agency. The barrier units are made by Cape Town company Labscheme Allchem.
The Reunion Island installation is first time that the company is installing the technology outside of South African waters, as the island — through its Shark Risk Reduction Resource and Support Center — explores ways to curb its shark problem.
All good and well, but now a row is developing over who exactly invented the SharkSafe Barrier.
Over to TimesLIVE for more on that:
The row involves some of the top names in white shark conservation, including Gansbaai diver and filmmaker Mike Rutzen, who famously free-dived with great whites for National Geographic…
It was patented by Stellenbosch University last year after a six-year development project involving Rutzen and three other experts.
Now one of them, US conservation biologist Craig O’Connell [below], has threatened legal action after being excluded from the patent rights and a company set up to profit from them.
In a widely shared Facebook post, O’Connell expresses outrage that the shark shield has been deployed in Reunion without his knowledge.
“I am a bit shocked because as the principal investigator I was unaware of this deployment,” O’Connell said. “The original SharkSafe barrier was invented by myself while in Bimini, Bahamas, during my internship at the Bimini Biological Field Station, and then I brought it to SA and formed a collaboration to test it on large sharks.
“The team from the University of Stellenbosch is deploying my invention without my permission or knowledge and it is quite sad to learn about it from the press!” he writes.
He’s also critical of any statements describing the barrier as ‘100% safe’ or ‘100% effective’, saying that sharks are complex animals and SharkSafe results and studies don’t back up those claims.
O’Connell added that he is consulting with lawyers, but didn’t elaborate on that front.
Stellenbosch University hit back with claims that O’Connell was informed of their intent to commercialise the venture:
“Since Mr Rutzen and Dr O’Connell were not employed by the university, upfront negotiations took place to ensure that they both understood that any invention resulting from the research would belong to the university, and that they would receive a portion of any benefits received from successful commercialisation of the shark barrier,” the university said in a statement.
“There are numerous benefits to the inventors. These include the fact that the university bears the not-insubstantial costs of obtaining patent protection for the invention and assists in [its] commercialisation.”
The university said it had obtained legal advice confirming it had followed the correct procedure. “These findings were communicated to Dr O’Connell through his attorney. There was no substantive reply.”
The university was also critical of O’Connell, saying that he had “alienated” himself, which resulted in his exclusion from the venture going forward.
I’m not sure how this one will play out legally, but let’s just hope that the barrier does prove to be 100% safe, in a way that is both non-invasive and non-harmful to the animals whose habitat we enter when we choose to take a dip.
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