A TIP FOR THE CSIRO: I RECKON THERE ARE MORE SHARKS

Af­ter years of re­search, sci­en­tists say they have no clue about great white num­bers

The Australian - - COMMENTARY - FRED PAWLE Fred Pawle is com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor at the Men­zies Re­search Cen­tre.

Re­search­ing man-eat­ing sharks should be one of the eas­i­est jobs in sci­ence. These are not small or timid an­i­mals. They can be lured eas­ily with bur­ley, then tagged or iden­ti­fied by their unique mark­ings. They of­ten leave a trail of de­struc­tion on other marine crea­tures and, trag­i­cally, peo­ple, as they did at Cowaramup in West­ern Aus­tralia this week.

A com­bi­na­tion of sim­ple sta­tis­tics should pro­vide a rea­son­ably easy and re­li­able es­ti­ma­tion of whether their size and abun­dance is in­creas­ing or de­creas­ing, es­pe­cially for the CSIRO, which was in­stru­men­tal in lob­by­ing for pro­tec­tion of great whites here and world­wide dur­ing the mid-1990s, and which has been re­search­ing the beasts ever since.

But no. At the Sen­ate in­quiry into shark mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies last year, CSIRO se­nior prin­ci­pal re­search sci­en­tist Nic Bax said he had no ev­i­dence that the great white pop­u­la­tion was in­creas­ing. “It could be de­creas­ing … we don’t know,” he said.

The con­se­quence of that as­ton­ish­ingly in­con­clu­sive re­search — which is con­trary to the alarm­ing anec­do­tal ob­ser­va­tions of most fish­er­men, surfers and other ocean users — was felt this week.

The en­su­ing po­lit­i­cal de­bate has fo­cused on who is re­spon­si­ble for im­ple­ment­ing mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies. Fed­eral En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Josh Fry­den­berg re­peated his long-held of­fer to the WA gov­ern­ment for an ex­emp­tion to the fed­eral pro­tec­tion leg­is­la­tion to al­low tar­geted safety mea­sures. WA re­peat­edly has de­clined the of­fer.

But the is­sue can be traced back to the CSIRO. If its re­searchers were sud­denly to agree that the ob­ser­va­tional in­dexes were cor­rect, and that the pop­u­la­tion trend of great whites, af­ter decades of pro­tec­tion, was in the pos­i­tive, Fry­den­berg would be free to lift pro­tec­tion — with suit­able re­stric­tions to man­age the pop­u­la­tion — and our be­lea­guered fish­ing fleets could re­turn to the days when a de­cent set of jaws would fetch a handy four-fig­ure sum at the pub.

Aus­tralia’s beach lovers, es­pe­cially in WA, would again be able to en­joy our great­est recre­ational re­source with rel­a­tive ease. Tourists would be more in­clined to en­joy our fa­mous beaches.

But what would hap­pen to the CSIRO’s multi-mil­lion-dol­lar re­search pro­gram? Its ter­mi­na­tion would be the best thing to hap­pen to Aus­tralian beach cul­ture since the re­lax­ation of laws on full-body bathing cos­tumes.

The only men­tion of pub­lic safety in the Great White Re­cov­ery Plan of 2002, the of­fi­cial in­cep­tion of this trag­i­cally mis­guided pro­gram, is a pass­ing ref­er­ence to a need for “safe swim­ming guide­lines”. In the 16 years since, noth­ing has changed.

The re­searchers who have carved their ca­reers from this in­creas­ingly fa­tal pro­gram make lit­tle or no ref­er­ence to pub­lic safety, which is their brief.

At last year’s Sen­ate in­quiry, Bax said “we’ve never been asked to ad­dress that is­sue”.

Not that it seems to be a con­cern to the CSIRO. The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Barry Bruce, a doyen of the field, said on the Nine Net­work’s To­day show in 2015 that the peo­ple of New­cas­tle in NSW, who at the time were enduring a 10th straight day of beach clo­sures caused by shark sight­ings, should “re­spect” great whites.

This year we have seen two un­com­mon in­ci­dents, even by our stan­dards: the first at­tack in Botany Bay, Syd­ney, in 25 years; and two at­tacks in one day this week.

This alone should be enough to ring alarm bells. But the ab­sence of a fa­tal­ity or sev­ered limb — ei­ther of which eas­ily could have hap­pened — has rel­e­gated these in­ci­dents to mi­nor mishaps, part of the new re­al­ity of Aus­tralian beach cul­ture. One other fac­tor also might have had a more dra­matic ef­fect on the de­bate but so far has not. The World Surf League was hold­ing a world ti­tle event at nearby Mar­garet River when the Cowaramup at­tacks oc­curred. It called a brief halt, then sent com­peti­tors back out, closely watched by jet skis and drones. To­day, af­ter ten­sion among the ranks, the con­test again was post­poned. “All surfers are ad­vised not to surf in the area,” the WSL said in a state­ment.

The event’s main spon­sor is the state gov­ern­ment. The WSL has the rare op­por­tu­nity to rep­re­sent the state’s surfers, its au­di­ence, and tell the gov­ern­ment it won’t re­turn un­til safety mea­sures have been de­ployed. All Aus­tralian surfers will watch with in­ter­est.

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