Early in June, Peter Hannam, environment editor for the Sydney Morning Herald (and The Age in Melbourne) wrote an article about results of research into great white sharks.
He began: “Great white sharks are picky eaters, altering their diet to meet changing needs as they grow. Mammals are of little interest until the animals mature and bites on humans are likely to be mistakes.”
I thought at the time this was a fairly anthropomorphic thing to say, attributing to a shark the human quality of being able to make a “mistake”. What? The shark did not mean to bite the person involved? Clearly, it did. Or did the shark make the “mistake” of thinking the person was one of its usual food items. If so, does that matter, given the fact a great white bite can be so catastrophic? It seemed a facile and intellectually shallow statement.
Yet, attributing bites on humans to a mistake on the part of the shark was apparently so important it was elevated to the second sentence in a lengthy article. The heading on the article read: “Study shows surprising diet of sharks with little interest in mammals”.
He quoted a researcher as saying “From about 2.5 metres (in length), they (great white sharks) start to include marine mammals” in their diet (before then eating mostly fish). “It’s definitely not the case of sharks targeting humans [as] what it might have been portrayed – it’s usually a case of mistaken identity.”
Though the interview with the researcher was conducted before the event, Peter Hannam wrote this article the day after a 60-year-old surfboard rider was killed by a great white shark near Kingscliff in northern New South Wales on Sunday, June 7.
On July 4, less than a month after Peter Hannam’s SMH article, a shark fatally bit a spear fisherman off Indian Head on Fraser Island.
On July 11, five weeks after the SMH article, a great white fatally bit a young surfer off Wilson’s Headland near Wooli in northern New South Wales.
On July 17, less than six weeks after the SMH article, a great white leapt from the water to pull a 10-year-old boy off a boat in northern Tasmania (though he escaped serious injury when his father jumped into the water after him and scared the shark off).
On July 31, at Bunker Bay in south-west WA, a great white attacked a surfer, ripping his leg but kept at bay long enough for the surfer to be rescued by other riders.
On August 15, a great white attacked a woman surfing at Shelly Beach, near Port Macquarie. Her husband paddled over and punched the shark till it let go.
Of course, another fatal attack on a surfer by a great white occurred in fairly shallow water off Greenmount Headland on the Gold Coast on September 8.
That is four fatal attacks and two life-threatening attacks in three months, added to fatal attacks on a diver off Esperance in WA in January (by a great white) and a swimmer at North-West Island off Gladstone in April.
So far this year, there have been 16 unprovoked shark attacks in Australia, leaving six people dead and five injured. All mistakes?
Everyone in Queensland clearly remembers the spate of shark attacks on people swimming from yachts in idyllic Cid Harbour in the Whitsundays in 2018: an initially unreported attack on September 10, after which the man involved got himself to hospital; an attack on September 19 on a 46-year-old woman who was lucky to survive; an attack on September 20 on a 12-year-old girl who lost a leg; and an attack on November 5 on a 33-year-old medical doctor who died.
In October 2019, in nearby Hook Passage, two British snorkellers were attacked, one losing a foot.
It is ludicrous to argue these sharks are biting people because of “mistaken identity”. Any empirical evidence for that assertion? No, not likely.
Are great whites mistaking surfers for seals in northern New South Wales, the Gold Coast or Fraser Island? Hardly. Do sharks think swimmers and snorkellers in the crystal-clear waters of the Whitsundays are big fish? Hardly credible.
Let’s just agree that sharks are opportunistic feeders: if hungry, they will feed on any manageable form of prey, wherever and whenever they come across it. That might be a fish or a dolphin or a dead whale or a human.
Another argument in defence of sharks is that their bites are often tentative or stimulated by curiosity and, once they realise they’ve made a “mistake” and bitten something that is not a usual prey item, they will swim away.
Without going into too much detail about such a recent tragedy, surfers who witnessed the Greenmount attack said there was virtually no flesh remaining on the surfer’s leg between hip and knee. Hardly a tentative bite.
And multiple deaths or injuries suggest a motive at play other than curiosity or mistaken identity.
At Kirra on the Gold Coast on 27 October 1937, three young men were body surfing at the back of the beach break when two were killed by a shark within moments of each other. Later, a 3.6-metre, 850-kg female tiger shark was caught with human remains in its stomach.
On the night of 13 March 1977, two men clinging to the outside of an icebox after their launch had been run down and sunk by a freighter in Moreton Bay were taken by a shark. A third man, inside the icebox at the time, survived.
In July 1983, three crew members from a sunken trawler were floating on a surfboard, pieces of foam and a life-ring near Lodestone Reef, off Townsville, when two were taken by a large tiger shark (or sharks).
In early November 1988, a 62-year-old man and his two sons, 33 and 17, were fishing in a motor cruiser when it sank in rough seas off North Keppel Island in Central Queensland. They had a four-metre dinghy but took it in turns to hang off the side, two at a time, because it was being swamped when all three were in it.
The father and his 17-year-old son were both taken by a tiger shark (or sharks) and a rescue helicopter crew saw two sharks apparently trying to capsize the dinghy when they came in to winch the survivor to safety.
The world’s worst recorded attack was on survivors of the World War 2 heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis. It was torpedoed in the Pacific, near Guam, on 29 July 1945, sinking in 12 minutes. An estimated 900 of its 1,196 crew got into the water but most of them with just life-jackets to keep them afloat. Four to five days later, 317 were rescued, after many drowned but some men – estimated by survivors as somewhere between “dozens and 150” – were killed by sharks, mostly oceanic whitetips.
None of those multiple-victim attacks was a case of mistaken identity, any more than attacks in the surf zone are likely to be. Just opportunistic.
And shark numbers are increasing, in the surf zone and elsewhere.
In the 2020/2 edition of Queensland Seafood, we reported New South Wales beach fishermen are seeing increasing numbers of juvenile great whites in the surf zone.
And in just four days in early July, contractors tagged and released 14 great whites hooked on “smart” drumlines along just 40km of coast between Lennox Head and Evans Head (south of Byron Bay). That’s four days, 14 sharks, just 40km of coastline.
In four years of trials between Lennox and Evans Head that ended in July, researchers caught, tagged and moved further out to sea more than 400 target sharks (whites, tigers and bulls). Of those, 333 were great whites.
The Federal Government’s Department of Agriculture, Water & Environment – no, I kid you not, it’s the Department of AWE – has a national recovery plan in place for great whites, despite the fact they don’t know how many great whites there are in waters around Australia and don’t have any way of measuring whether that unknown number is increasing or decreasing.
Based on the fact more than 300 great whites have been tagged in a small area of the NSW North Coast, I would say the species is relatively abundant.
After the September 2018 Cid Harbour attacks, in less than a week three drumlines caught six sharks, five of them tiger sharks over two metres long. Cid Harbour is now a declared “No Swim” zone while experts study shark prevalence and behaviour in the area.
On reefs throughout North Queensland waters, both commercial and recreational fishermen complain about growing numbers of sharks stealing hooked fish on the way to the boat.
While researchers often want to focus on exotic shark species like scalloped hammerheads, the common species fishermen see regularly are increasing in numbers.
What is being done round the country to protect sharks clearly is working – but putting people at greater risk.
Peter Hannam’s concern seems to be that shark attacks will generate more lethal controls on sharks. He is particularly concerned about shark nets.
For example, he wrote in May 2018 that: “The utility of shark nets is again being challenged, with the north coast meshing trial snagging just two targeted sharks out of 143 animals caught in its second year. Separate data from State archives going back to 1950 also reveal almost 20,000 animals have been caught in shark nets, including in the 51 nets off the beaches of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong. Many of the creatures caught are now endangered, such as grey nurse sharks.”
In August 2019 he wrote an article that began: “Nets at popular NSW beaches were almost 20 times as likely to ensnare a non-targeted animal such as a turtle or dolphin than a large shark, with many of the trapped animals on the threatened species list, new data shows. The State’s Shark Meshing Program (SMP), which covers 51 beaches from Newcastle to Sydney and Wollongong, trapped 395 animals during the period between September 1, 2018 and April 30, 2019, according to the Department of Primary Industries. Of that total, just 23 of the animals were one of the targeted species: white, bull or tiger sharks. Twelve of those sharks were killed in the nets.” In December 2019 he said, in a story headed “’We fear the very dramatic thing’ – Shark nets found to be ineffective” that: “Nets off NSW beaches trap 16 times more non-target species than the three dangerous sharks they are aimed at, with little measurable benefit in terms of improving human safety. These are among the findings of a study published on Wednesday in the People and Nature journal that examined the Shark Meshing Program, first introduced in 1937. The nets cover 51 beaches between Wollongong and Newcastle, including Sydney.”
And, on August 1 this year, in an article headed “ ‘Senseless’: Nets catch 480 animals including many protected species”, he began: “The number of animals caught in NSW’s shark nets jumped more than a fifth in the latest season, trapping more than 180 threatened or protected species.
The shark meshing program run by the Department of Primary Industries found 480 animals were caught in the 51 shark nets placed near popular beaches between Wollongong and Newcastle during the September to April netting period.
“That total was up from the 395 caught during the previous year, and was the largest catch since 2015-16, according to Lawrence Chlebeck, a marine biologist with Humane Society International*. Almost 60 per cent of the animals caught died in the nets, a slightly higher proportion than in previous years
“Coastal beaches have had shark nets since the 1930s, targeting white, bull and tiger sharks that are considered a threat to humans. Of the 480 animals trapped last season, only 50 were targeted sharks, mostly whites.”
Fifty sharks, most of them great whites – that’s interesting.
The bottom line is I happen to believe human life is more precious than fish life.
I also believe that, unless communities in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland are prepared to lose surfers, divers or swimmers every year – and see more tourist meccas declared “No Swim” zones – then something smarter has to be done about managing not just the sharks but also the risk they present.
Let’s pay attention to professional fishermen – people who are out on the water every working day of their life – when they talk about seeing more and more sharks in their usual fishing spots. And, when the inevitable, predictable attacks happen, let’s not dismiss them as “mistakes”.
* Humane Society International is the group that took successful court action last year to prevent lethal shark drumlines being set in waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. (The court action was funded by the US-based Shark Conservation Fund, sponsored in turn by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Inc).
Author: THE GULL
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