Gaansbaai was originally called Gansgat, a name derived from the wild geese that abounded there. Its origin as a fishing village is probably linked with the wreck of the troopship Birkenhead off Danger Point on 26 Feb. 1852, after which a number of survivors settled there and existed on gardening and on what the sea could offer. Afrikaans-speaking families with English names, descendants from these early settlers, are still living in Gaansbaai. The village was laid out on the farm Strandfontein. From the earliest days fishing has been the chief source of income, but as a result of the isolation of the village, the poor communications and the perishable nature of fish, the fishermen led a life of poverty and struggle. The growing demand for vitamin A during the Second World War - mainly to supply the army - brought relief to Cans Bay. The tope or grey shark (Ga-leorhinus galeus), which had hitherto been regarded by local fishermen as a nuisance, was turned into a lucrative source of income. The liver of this shark is rich in vitamin A, and a small factory was set up in 1939 to process the livers for oil. As the industry progressed the factory was modernised and it brought a number of years of prosperity to Gaansbaai.
After the war, when the demand for vitamin A dwindled, shark fishing no longer proved profitable and the fishermen were again faced with hardship. Until then only the livers of the grey shark were considered to be of any value, the carcasses being discarded as waste. In order to save the industry from total collapse an outlet was sought for these carcasses. It was then that the foresight, resourcefulness and initiative of J. R. Barnard, the local school principal, came to the rescue. In April 1950 he convened a meeting of local fishermen and proposed the forming of a co-operative society. The idea was enthusiastically received, the Fisheries Development Corporation was approached for assistance and the capital obtained for the establishment of the first fisheries co-operative in South Africa in 1952. The possibilities of marketing shark flesh were explored, and markets for dried shark flesh were found in various African states, chiefly in the Congo. The sharks' fins - long regarded as a delicacy in the East - are exported to the Far East.
The Gaansbaai Kooperatiewe Vissery Bpk. brought prosperity to Gansbaai. The sheltered harbour has been deepened and the bay made wider to give better moorings and a modern fish-meal factory has been established, which came into operation in Jan. 1963 and is supplied by a fleet of nine pilchard trawlers bought at R40 000 each and all named after species of wild geese, like Vleigans, Sneeugans, Berggans, etc. Municipal status was achieved on 1 April 1962.