Last Saturday morning a diver was taken by a shark off Busselton in Western Australian — the fourth fatal attack in WA since September last year. Calls for a cull of white sharks, the likely culprit, again have been made but even the WA government has resisted. Killing individual sharks may satisfy a lust for revenge or remove “rogue sharks” if they can be identified quickly, but it is unlikely to make it much safer to swim, surf or dive.
Western Australia now has the unenviable reputation as the world’s deadliest place for shark attacks.
The most deadly of Australian sharks, the white shark was protected from hunting and fishing in the early 1990s. It has been variously listed as vulnerable both on the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) List and the Australian Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Australia has a history of shark attacks from Aboriginal times through to the the first attempts at European settlement, especially in southern waters. The threat of sharks saw the development of caged sea pools along Port Phillip Bay and around swimming beaches of other capitals and even along estuarine rivers in regional centres.
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In the 1960s aerial patrols of summer beaches were common, with sirens sounding to warn people to get out of the water along beaches in Melbourne and Sydney. From The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday January 28, 1963;
Australia Day Surfers Warned of Sharks
The beach patrol aircraft had counted 66 sharks on the previous days flight along Sydney’s northern beaches … A school of nine hammerhead were sighted at Palm Beach the previous afternoon.
There was a fatal shark attack that day just north of Balmoral Beach and 32-year-old Marcia Hathaway died.
Documentaries of divers killing sharks with “powerhead spears” were common on Sunday night TV dive adventure shows — yet at the time most of the dozens of species of shark were little known and some even unidentified.
Jaws the movie in 1975 and subsequent sequels brought fear of white sharks and sharks in general back into the Western public’s mind.
The Australian population continued to grow, and places formerly legendary for shark attacks — such as Sydney Harbour — became popular with swimmers again as pollution and habitat loss saw less fish generally. The rapid growth in surfing and diving brought many more people into more remote coastal areas with consequent increases in “drowning” incidents for divers and shark attacks for surfers.
Almost in response to the bad image of sharks, marine science adopted them as “threatened” from the early 1990s and the protection of white sharks was accompanied by international calls for the end of of all shark fishing — still identified as the principle threat to sharks in general — while few portions of the dozens of nursery grounds for shark in estuaries bays and inlets are protected.
Peter Benchley, the author of the book Jaws on which the movie was based, called for white shark protection in 2000. The thinking behind this bio/political shift was that sharks were primitive, reproduced slowly, had few live young or eggs and were therefore vulnerable to extinction (though it is hard to imagine many predators for a near two-metre newborn white shark). This “shift” made all species of sharks vulnerable to “overfishing” — even white sharks that were only ever an occasional bycatch in commercial fisheries, though the data used was “thin” at best.
Over the past 20 years, coastal populations, scuba diving and surfing have grown and with more adventurous tourism to more remote areas such as Cactus in the Great Australian Bight. With surfers being only “a hook short of being bait” and floating out behind the breakers at dawn and dusk, when sharks tend to hunt, the increasing number of shark attacks is not surprising. Similarly divers can look like tasty “seal-like” morsels to white sharks. However, in Western Australia attacks in these areas has also grown against a background of fatal shark attacks at Perth’s Cottesloe Beach two weeks ago and the loss of an American tourist diving off Rottnest Island south of Perth a month ago.
Queensland and NSW protected swimming beaches with both patrolled set nets and set baits — but there has been ongoing pressure to drop even these measures due to their impact on whales, dolphins, dugongs and sharks themselves.
The sharks most likely to bite and/or kill are white sharks, bull sharks of the bays and estuaries, tiger sharks, especially in the tropics and bronze whalers found in all temperate and warm temperate waters. Hammerheads also have an earned reputation for being deadly.
I was nearly taken by a bronze whaler while snorkeling way too close to dawn in a gutter behind a reef in northern NSW four years ago. I just got through the shore break and looked back towards the beach underwater to have a long trunk and then a pretty big tail fin pass to close. Thirty seconds later the same shark was parked just below me, mouth open and staring, not looking happy. With eyes shut tight I dived at it, screaming underwater and then swam slowly to the shore — the longest 50-metre swim ever. It was my fault: I was in her hunting ground when she normally hunted and she wanted me out. I was lucky not to be bitten — which could well be fatal — and that she was not interested in eating me.
Education about where and when to swim and dive to better avoid sharks for tourists and locals alike may save lives — but is it “good for tourism”? Though unpopular with marine conservationists, patrolled shark netting and set lines appear to have worked on Queensland and NSW beaches and could work elsewhere.
To date, the Commonwealth and states have been investing mainly in managing the conservation status and “regulating” the catches of white and other sharks. It is clearly time to swing that investment back to developing practical means of protecting people on swimming beaches from all dangerous shark species and ramping up education for divers and surfers.
Sharks do not have to be “endangered” or “vulnerable” to have their interactions with people far better managed. A balance between generating tourism income from people watching sharks from cages — like human bait — and investments in protecting tourists and locals alike along an increasing breadth of swimming and surfing beaches they visit.