“IS IT SAFE to swim here?”

Australian Geographic - - Your Society -

Four­teen-year-old life­saver Da­mon Ken­drick re­mem­bers be­ing ir­ri­tated at be­ing asked this by a neigh­bour one Sun­day in Fe­bru­ary 1974. “What do you mean, is it safe to swim here?” he replied, although he knew ex­actly what she meant. A man had been bit­ten by a shark here, at Amanz­im­toti, 24km from Durban in South Africa, the pre­vi­ous month. “It’s a once-ina-life­time oc­cur­rence,” Da­mon told his neigh­bour, ex­plain­ing that not only were shark at­tacks ex­tremely rare, but the beach was well pro­tected by shark nets.

But just four days later, Da­mon, who is now 57, woke up in hos­pi­tal with the mem­ory of doc­tors telling him that they’d had to am­pu­tate. He lifted the sheets and saw that his lower right leg was gone. He’d been bit­ten dur­ing life­sav­ing drills at the beach he was so con­fi­dent posed no dan­ger. Over the next 13 months, an­other three peo­ple had run-ins with sharks there, high­light­ing the fact that mesh nets are much less ef­fec­tive than many peo­ple re­alise.

It would be great to think that in the many years since Da­mon was bit­ten, we’d learnt enough about shark at­tack mit­i­ga­tion that these sorts of en­coun­ters no longer oc­curred, but that’s un­for­tu­nately not the case. Paul Gaughan, a com­mu­nity para­medic in Esper­ance, Western Aus­tralia, has at­tended to two shark-bite vic­tims since 2014, the most re­cent last April. “The 17-year-old girl had been dragged from the sea, pulse­less, with her left leg miss­ing,” he told me. “I still live in hope that I won’t have to at­tend any­thing like this again, but I know it’s a real pos­si­bil­ity.”

While any shark bite is hugely trau­matic, and the loss of hu­man life is tragic, our per­cep­tion of the risk and fre­quency of shark at­tacks tends to be out of pro­por­tion to re­al­ity. Shark at­tacks, although in­creas­ing in fre­quency, are still ex­tremely rare. And most ‘at­tacks’ would more ap­pro­pri­ately be de­scribed as bites, or sim­ply en­coun­ters.

In terms of dan­gers in our daily lives that could harm or kill us, sharks are about as close to an in­con­se­quen­tial threat as you can get. The lead­ing causes of death in Aus­tralia in­clude heart dis­ease (which killed 19,077 peo­ple in 2016) and can­cer. And when it comes to deaths caused by an­i­mals, it’s horses, cows

and dogs that top the list. Yet none of these crea­tures elicit any­where near the same in­ter­est or fear as neg­a­tive interactions with sharks. I can’t re­call hear­ing about cow-re­lated deaths on the news, yet 33 peo­ple were killed in in­ci­dents with cows in 2000–2010, twice as many as those in­volv­ing sharks.

Typ­i­cally, there are 10–20 shark bites a year in Aus­tralia, but most are not fa­tal; there was just one shark-at­tack fa­tal­ity in 2017. But what of­ten makes at­tacks more mem­o­rable are ‘clus­ters’ of en­coun­ters in specif ic re­gions – such as north­ern NSW in 2015 and south-western WA in 2010–2014.

We are gain­ing much in­sight from study­ing these clus­ters, such as the seem­ing link be­tween shark bite fre­quency and El Niño weather con­di­tions. But the at­ten­tion given to shark en­coun­ters, and the re­sult­ing de­mands for culling as­so­ci­ated with these events, puz­zles me, when there are so many more com­mon – and sim­i­larly hor­rific – causes of hu­man trauma.

ALTHOUGH ME­DIA at­ten­tion on shark bites is a re­cent phe­nom­e­non, peo­ple ven­tur­ing into the sea have al­ways faced the risk of at­tack. Sto­ries of such en­coun­ters have been told and re­told for mil­len­nia. In the Syd­ney sub­urb of Bondi, for ex­am­ple, there’s a 2000-year-old Abo­rig­i­nal coastal rock carv­ing de­pict­ing a man be­ing at­tacked by a huge shark.

The f irst well-doc­u­mented shark at­tack clus­ter oc­curred in 1916 along a 150km stretch of coast in the US state of New Jersey. Dubbed at that time the “most se­ri­ous string of sharkre­lated fa­tal­i­ties in Amer­i­can his­tory”, it re­sulted in four deaths and one se­ri­ous in­jury dur­ing just 13 days.

With each fa­tal­ity, word spread, and nearby towns lost sig­nif icant tourism rev­enue dur­ing the peak hol­i­day sea­son. Fear from lo­cals and anger over lost prof its prompted the f irst call for gov­ern­ment ac­tion in re­la­tion to shark at­tacks, although none even­tu­ated.

Soon af­ter, a se­ries of 13 shark-re­lated in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing seven fa­tal­i­ties, in NSW in 1918–1929 re­sulted in £10 f ines be­ing levied on bathers who swam at dawn, dusk, alone or far from shore, and led to the birth of the term ‘shark bait’.

The first time shark at­tacks re­ally gained their modern no­to­ri­ety was to­wards the end of World War II, when Amer­i­can war­ship the USS In­di­anapo­lis was sunk by a Ja­panese sub­ma­rine in the Western Pa­cific in 1945. About 300 men died im­me­di­ately, but the 900 who sur­vived the de­struc­tion from the tor­pe­does were left adrift in the wa­ter for four days. It is un­known how many sailors were ac­tu­ally killed by sharks, but it’s said that dozens to hun­dreds of bod­ies were con­sumed by sharks, most likely oceanic whitetips. Only 317 men were pulled out of the wa­ter alive when help f in­ally ar­rived.

The next and ar­guably most sig­nif icant inf lu­ence on our per­cep­tion of shark at­tacks was the 1975 re­lease of the f ilm Jaws, which brought the fear of sharks into the movie the­atres and liv­ing rooms of many mil­lions of peo­ple. It played on our in­nate fears of the un­known and un­con­trol­lable. But, most notably, it cre­ated a very mem­o­rable men­tal pic­ture of a shark at­tack.

This is sig­nif icant, be­cause our brains fre­quently rely on the ‘ex­pe­ri­en­tial’ sys­tem of risk as­sess­ment, or more sim­ply our gut feel­ings and in­stincts. Through this sys­tem, if a sit­u­a­tion – ei­ther real or per­ceived – can be eas­ily re­called, the risk it poses ap­pears am­pli­fied. Emo­tional, vivid and un­usual mem­o­ries are more long-last­ing and eas­ily re­called. This is ex­actly what Jaws did for the f irst time on a global scale – and it’s what repet­i­tive, highly de­scrip­tive me­dia re­ports on shark at­tacks con­tinue to do to­day.

SHARK AT­TACKS HAVE been recorded from all con­ti­nents, ex­cept Antarc­tica, and across 120 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries. The USA con­sis­tently has the great­est recorded num­ber of bites, but the vast ma­jor­ity are mi­nor, with few fa­tal­i­ties. Aus­tralia comes sec­ond in an­nual bite fre­quency, and gen­er­ally records a cou­ple of fa­tal­i­ties per year. South Africa, and more re­cently Re­union Is­land, also records bites every year.

Sta­tis­tics show that shark at­tacks are on the rise glob­ally, but they vary from year to year. This is be­cause many dif­fer­ent, in­ter­act­ing fac­tors can af­fect and dis­rupt the nat­u­ral bal­ance of a re­gion, chang­ing the like­li­hood of shark–hu­man in­ter­ac­tion.

The most sig­nif icant rea­son for in­creases in at­tacks is that hu­man pop­u­la­tions are grow­ing and more peo­ple are go­ing into the sea. When you com­pare num­bers of shark bites per decade with Aus­tralia’s pop­u­la­tion size since 1900, the in­ci­dence was ac­tu­ally high­est in the 1930s, with about 10 bites per mil­lion peo­ple. Through­out the 1980s and ’90s this had fallen to about 3.5 bites per mil­lion and in the 2000s had risen slightly to 5.4 bites per mil­lion.

Some of this vari­a­tion may ref lect changes in the en­vi­ron­ment that lead to more over­lap be­tween sharks and hu­mans. Such changes in­clude the con­struc­tion of coastal in­fra­struc­ture; shift­ing pat­terns of wa­ter cur­rents and tem­per­a­tures, par­tic­u­larly seen in El Niño years; changes to wa­ter qual­ity; and the dis­tri­bu­tion and abun­dance of prey.

It’s also likely the re­port­ing and doc­u­men­ta­tion of shark bites has be­come much bet­ter with modern com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies, skew­ing the sta­tis­tics in re­cent years. Any shark–hu­man in­ter­ac­tion is ma­jor news and at­tracts a lot of me­dia in­ter­est. There­fore, it is much eas­ier for the man­agers of shark at­tack data­bases to col­lect and record in­ci­dents.

It’s also im­por­tant to note that, while at­tacks are in­creas­ing world­wide, num­bers of fa­tal­i­ties are de­creas­ing. There were

While at­tacks are in­creas­ing world­wide, num­bers of fa­tal­i­ties are de­creas­ing.

just six shark at­tack fa­tal­i­ties in 2015 (6.1 per cent of bites re­sulted in deaths) and only four in 2016 (4.9 per cent). In Aus­tralia, the fa­tal­ity rate, as a per­cent­age of all bites, has de­creased sig­nif icantly, from the long-term av­er­age of 30 per cent, to just be­low 11 per cent in the past decade. This is partly thanks to im­proved pre­pared­ness and aware­ness, faster ac­tions of f irst re­spon­ders and paramedics, and ad­vances in med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy.

Hu­man conf lict with an­i­mals is a sig­nif­i­cant and wide­spread is­sue glob­ally, but few if any species are more feared than sharks. While gov­ern­ments can­not be held ac­count­able for shark at­tacks, they can be held ac­count­able for the ac­tions they take in re­sponse.

Panic around shark at­tacks, fa­tal ones in par­tic­u­lar, un­der­stand­ably in­volves height­ened emo­tions, pres­sur­ing gov­ern­ments to re­act swiftly. But these are is­sues that can­not be rushed, putting pol­icy-mak­ers in a diff icult po­si­tion. The com­plex­ity of man­ag­ing shark–hu­man interactions means that time and re­sources are needed for in­formed de­ci­sions. If politi­cians do

not re­act strongly, they ap­pear un­sym­pa­thetic to the loss and risk to hu­man life. But im­pul­sive ac­tions, im­ple­mented with­out thor­ough con­sid­er­a­tion, can re­sult in in­ef­fec­tive and in­eff icient mea­sures that dam­age the marine en­vi­ron­ment with­out ac­tu­ally im­prov­ing safety. The main chal­lenge gov­ern­ments face, there­fore, is form­ing proac­tive, well-con­sid­ered poli­cies based on facts, not emo­tions.

AVARIETY OF mea­sures have been em­ployed in Aus­tralia to re­duce the risk of neg­a­tive interactions with sharks. These in­clude the de­ploy­ment of mesh nets at beaches, drum­lines and aerial pa­trols, as well as shark-tag­ging and track­ing pro­grams.

The old­est mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures are the shark nets em­ployed in NSW since 1937 and the nets and drum­lines of the Queens­land Shark Con­trol Pro­gram, op­er­at­ing since 1962. The orig­i­nal nets and drum­lines were in­tended to kill sharks to re­duce over­all num­bers.

How­ever, the func­tion­al­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness of shark nets are of­ten mis­un­der­stood, as Da­mon Ken­drick came to re­alise in South Africa in 1974. They in no way form a bar­rier or ex­clu­sion zone, stretch­ing only across f inite dis­tances of 150–186m, and for just a por­tion of the wa­ter depth.

High­light­ing the fal­li­bil­ity of shark nets is the fact that about 40 per cent of all sharks caught are taken on the beach side of the net.

Re­mov­ing sharks from their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments is not only un­eth­i­cal but im­prac­ti­cal.

These nets are not only po­ten­tially fa­tal to sharks. They also snag and kill crea­tures such as dol­phins, tur­tles and rays. The shark mor­tal­ity caused by the nets has also been shown to have a ma­jor neg­a­tive ef­fect on both lo­cal and mi­gra­tory shark pop­u­la­tions. The NSW shark mesh net­ting pro­gram is listed as a key threat­en­ing process in the Fish­eries Man­age­ment Act 1994 and the Threat­ened Species Con­ser­va­tion Act 1995 (NSW).

Drum­lines use baited hooks to lure and kill sharks. They work on the same prin­ci­ple as mesh nets – to de­crease pop­u­la­tions of large, po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous, sharks and re­duce the like­li­hood of shark bites on nearby beaches.

Although drum­lines catch a va­ri­ety of species, by­catch is greatly re­duced through this method com­pared with mesh nets.

For­tu­nately, thanks to a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of shark be­hav­iour and move­ment pat­terns, and how sharks in­ter­act with peo­ple, our op­tions for more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures are in­creas­ing. Ad­vanced warn­ing sys­tems, for

ex­am­ple, through tag­ging and acous­tic ic track­ing of sharks, are prov­ing very pop­u­lar. r. Sur­veys have shown that peo­ple re­ally want more in­for­ma­tion so that they can make ake their own de­ci­sions about how and when hen to bathe, surf or snorkel. Early warn­ing ning sys­tems are help­ing by pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion ma­tion and a sense of se­cu­rity to wa­ter users.

Ad­vances on tra­di­tional mea­sures, such h as SMART drum­lines, are also promis­ing. These mod­ernised drum­lines alert a re­sponse team when an an­i­mal is hooked, al­low­ing them to rapidly re­lease non-tar­get an­i­mals and re­lo­cate or de­stroy po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sharks, sig­nif icantly re­duc­ing the num­ber of an­i­mals killed.

Fi­nally, con­tin­ued re­search into shark be­hav­iour, mi­gra­tion, dis­tri­bu­tion, pop­u­la­tion sta­tus and ecol­ogy is vi­tal to re­duc­ing the risk of neg­a­tive en­coun­ters be­tween peo­ple and sharks – as is a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of fac­tors that mo­ti­vate at­tacks. All of these will en­able bet­ter pre­dic­tions of high-risk sit­u­a­tions.

Sadly, shark culls due to the per­ceived threats to bathers, surfers and the fish­eries and tourism in­dus­tries have con­trib­uted to en­dan­ger­ing the pop­u­la­tions of at least 12 species of shark. Great white, bull and tiger sharks are com­monly tar­geted by culls. Yet great whites are listed as vul­ner­a­ble by the IUCN, and are pro­tected in some parts of the world, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia.

Sharks are a vi­tal com­po­nent of marine en­vi­ron­ments. They con­trol pop­u­la­tions from the top to the bot­tom of the food web. And, love them or hate them, sharks are un­de­ni­ably fas­ci­nat­ing. The an­ces­tors of modern sharks first ap­peared 450–400 mil­lion years ago, and, based on their abil­ity to sur­vive and evolve, sharks, rays and their rel­a­tives have been among the most suc­cess­ful of all ver­te­brates.

Sharks also benef it hu­man­ity in a sur­pris­ing va­ri­ety of ways. Shark an­ti­bod­ies are now be­ing stud­ied for med­i­cal uses, such as treat­ing can­cer and mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion, while shark phys phys­i­ol­ogy is teach­ing us how to bet­ter sur­vive hyp hy­poxia – or oxy­gen star­va­tion – fol­low­ing hear heart at­tacks and strokes. The in­cred­i­ble heal­ing abil­ity a of sharks is also com­ing un­der scru­tiny and an may one day help am­putees re­gen­er­ate limbs or im­prove heart func­tion in the el­derly.

UL­TI­MATELY, THE BEST way to re­duce hu­man fa­tal­i­ties and se­ri­ous trauma while also pro­tect­ing sharks is through ed­u­ca­tion. Peo­ple don’t want to be told what to do, and don’t like bans on beach use or recre­ational ac­tiv­ity in the wa­ter. In­stead, they want ac­cess to more in­for­ma­tion to form their own opin­ions and make their own de­ci­sions. Luck­ily, we live in a world where in­for­ma­tion is now read­ily avail­able – so our aim should be to en­sure that the guid­ance is use­ful and ac­cu­rate.

Dur­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of years, these sleek, beau­ti­ful and pow­er­ful preda­tors have evolved to be in­cred­i­bly adept in the wa­ter – dra­mat­i­cally more so than hu­man be­ings. Re­mov­ing sharks from their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments is not only un­eth­i­cal but im­prac­ti­cal. There­fore, the onus is on us to learn how to co­ex­ist with them, and to use our own evo­lu­tion­ary ad­van­tages – our ex­tra­or­di­nary cog­ni­tive ca­pa­bil­i­ties – to make ma­jor strides in this re­gard.

We will never be able to de­ter all bites, but I have no doubt we will con­tinue to make sig­nif­i­cant progress, fur­ther re­duc­ing the al­ready low risk of shark at­tacks.

When Da­mon Ken­drick was bit­ten by a shark at just 14, part of his right leg had to be am­pu­tated. But he still has a love for the ocean and swim­ming and, to this day, reg­u­larly com­petes in, and of­ten wins, open wa­ter swim­ming events.

Esper­ance com­mu­nity para­medic Paul Gaughan has re­sponded to two shark at­tacks. Bites, and the me­dia frenzy that sur­rounds these events, make for a far more dif­fi­cult day on the job than most trau­mas.

The fear of be­ing at­tacked by sharks can be traced back to our early an­ces­tors. This Abo­rig­i­nal en­grav­ing at Bondi, NSW, shows hu­mans have been telling sto­ries of sharks since the dawn of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Great white sharks are among the world’s iconic preda­tors. Gain­ing no­to­ri­ety fol­low­ing the film Jaws, these sharks be­came la­belled as vil­lains, and ‘mon­ster hunts’ en­sued. They are now pro­tected in sev­eral coun­tries, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia.

Shark nets are listed by the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture as threat­en­ing to many species not con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous to hu­mans, in­clud­ing thresher sharks, such as this one caught in a gill net.

Aerial pa­trols have been used for re­gional shark mit­i­ga­tion in the Illawarra, NSW, since 1957. Both crewed and drone aerial sur­veil­lance are gain­ing trac­tion for non-lethal mit­i­ga­tion in Aus­tralia and else­where.

Tra­di­tional drum­lines, such as those used by the Queens­land Shark Con­trol Pro­gram, are a lethal shark mit­i­ga­tion mea­sure, de­signed to catch and kill po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sharks such as this 4.7m tiger.

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