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Western Australia

Jul 17, 2012

What the numbers say about the risk of shark attack

A fatal shark attack in WA on Saturday has generated worldwide media coverage on the dangers of Australia's waters -- but statistics indicate those risks may have been overstated, write Cathy Alexander and Leigh Josey.

A fatal shark attack in Western Australia on Saturday has generated worldwide media coverage on the dangers of Australia’s waters — but statistically, you’re more likely to die falling from a chair or accidentally cutting yourself on broken glass than in a shark attack.

Surfer Ben Linden is believed to have been taken by a great white shark near Wedge Island, north of Perth. His death is the fifth fatal shark attack in Australia in 10 months — an unusually high toll.

The WA government has called for the protected status of the great white to be reassessed, which could clear the way for hunting or a cull, and provided $14 million to investigate shark attacks. Some in the tourism industry have voiced concerns the fatalities will deter visitors.

The story has been picked up around the globe — from The Sun and The Mirror in Britain, to NPR and CBS News in the US.

The death of Linden, and the four other men who have been killed by sharks in the past year, are tragedies that have shaken the surfing community in particular. The apparently increasing rate of shark attacks clearly justifies the current debate on safety in WA waters.

But does the extensive media coverage accurately portray the risk? Just how dangerous are sharks?

A sample of some of the headlines from Australia and overseas covering the latest shark fatality

Between zero and five people are killed in Australia by sharks each year. Taronga Zoo maintains an Australian Shark Attack File, which puts the total at 217 fatal shark attacks since European settlement. The average over the past 20 years is 1.1 deaths per year (this figure excludes shark attacks that are considered “provoked”, e.g. deaths during spear fishing, although there are few of these).

According to the most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which covers deaths registered in 2010, there were just over 140,000 deaths in Australia that year.

In 2010, four of those deaths were due to “contact with a marine animal” (although it appears not all of those animals were sharks; another shark tally found there was one shark death in that year). This compares with 1484 deaths in transport accidents, and 864 deaths due to accidental poisoning. Obesity was responsible for 221 deaths, while assaults claimed 217 lives.

More people died from falling from a ladder (27 deaths) or drowned in an accident involving a water craft (24) or a swimming pool (22) than died in shark attacks. Similarly, swine flu (19 deaths) had a higher toll than sharks, while 14 died in falls involving a chair, and five died as a result of accidental contact with broken glass. Being bitten or struck by a dog claimed four lives — the same number as those killed by marine animals.

Taronga’s Shark Attack File notes that deaths due to shark attacks are “extremely low” compared to other deaths from water-based activities, such as beach drownings.

“People should be more concerned with swimming at a beach than being killed in a shark attack,” John West, manager of life sciences operations with the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, told Crikey.

There may have been plenty of media attention on shark attacks but that doesn’t seem to have translated into research on sharks, their movements and why they attack.

Kent Stannard, a shark-tagger, surfer and founder of White Tag (which aims to track and understand great white sharks) says studies into marine environments are atrociously funded and that more research into the behavior of west coast great whites is needed.

“There has been some limited tagging and research done in WA but it has few known sites of seasonal white shark aggregation and these are mainly in the southern ocean where there are seal colonies,” Stannard said. “Up the west coast, there are no seal breeding colonies, just a couple of haul-out sites which makes locating sharks difficult and time-consuming, hence expensive.”

Great whites are “actively mobile”, says Stannard and, as a migratory species, may be more predatory when on the move than when residing temporarily near seal colonies.

“Nobody really knows why great whites attack,” he told Crikey. “They are completely misunderstood. They are highly intelligent and, contrary to popular belief, quite shy.”

Stannard keeps track of sharks by the use of either satellite or acoustic tags attached to the dorsal fin, under the skin or, in the case of juvenile great whites, the stomach lining. The tags help plot the highways and movement patterns of the animals. His research has found sharks can return to a particular location each season.

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15 thoughts on “What the numbers say about the risk of shark attack

  1. Elizabeth Meredith

    More people are recorded as falling off chairs or ladders than those attacked by sharks — BUT a much greater percentage of Australians sit on chairs compared with the percentage that go out into deep water on surf boards!!
    i.e it would seem there is a higher percentage chance of death by shark than death by chair!!
    Another factor in the discussion of course is our primeval fear of predators. While we easily imagine the gaping jaws of a shark, a chair or ladder would seem rather inoffensive. OOPs -I nearly fell off my wheeled office chair….

  2. Ramoneagle

    “This shark, swallow you whole. Little shakin’, little tenderizin’, an’ down you go. And we gotta do it quick, that’ll bring back your tourists, put all your businesses on a payin’ basis. But it’s not gonna be pleasant. I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, chief. I’ll find him for three, but I’ll catch him, and kill him, for ten. But you’ve gotta make up your minds. If you want to stay alive, then ante up. If you want to play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter.” Quint was a sandgroper! It’s 1975 in the wild west.

  3. mikeb

    As a frequent beach goer & swimmer I must confess that sharks are a real fear. The sight of those dead black eyes & gaping jaws coming towards you must be the most terrifying thing you could imagine. Logically i agree with the article but on a gut level I’m with Quint.

  4. Bill Hilliger

    We need an updated Australia movie version of “Jaws” to scare the cr-p out of people. How do the shark statistics compare with weekly Friday and Saturday night alcohol fuelled deaths?

  5. Bill Hilliger

    With reference to my earlier article should governments call for the protected status of licensed venues to be reassessed?

  6. paddy

    Will no one think of those poor bloody crocs?
    All that fine work by the NT News, and suddenly, they’ve been left behind as Australia’s finest predator…..
    By a flashy dinosaur in a sharkskin suit with teeth!

  7. 81dvl

    Well…when a shark comes into the supermarket, we eat it!

  8. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Elizabeth Meredith, a better comparison would be deaths by dog attack. Australian terrestrial life is filled with dogs – small, large, fluffy, angry, tamed etc. Thousands of people, maybe nearly all of us, intereact with a dog one way or another nearly every day. We are a bit cautious sometimes and we look out on behalf of little children and old ladies but by and large we accept that dogs hardly ever actually kill people – just as sharks hardly ever kill people.

  9. JGDowns

    Just to add another perspective here.

    ” If an animal shall take the life of a person, then that animal must be put to death.”Gen 9:5

  10. Owen Gary

    Shark lives in ocean, we live on land. Man destroys reef systems fish go elsewhere, shark looks elswhere to find fish & comes into contact with man more often.

    Corporates are chewing us up on a daily basis nobody has screamed to cull them yet!