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
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.