“IS IT SAFE to swim here?”
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.