There is a simple populist action that would quickly see a reduction in the numbers of sharks, including great whites, off the north coast of New South Wales.
It would definitely cut down on the number of shark attacks – so far there have been 13 attacks, including one death, in the area this year, which has been described everywhere as “a spate”.
It would mean the premier of New South Wales, Mike Baird, would no longer feel he had to convene “shark summits”, as he did this week.
Ultimately, it could even lead to an extinction of great whites, a species that has cursed Australian waters for as long as people here have plunged into the sea.
And it would definitely answer the kind of screaming front-page headlines seen along Australia’s east coast this week about “man eaters” stalking humans.
All we need to do is resurrect the spirit of a once-world-renowned Australian big-game fisherman named Alf Dean.
A biography of Alf written by Colin Thiele (who also authored the classic book Storm Boy) detailed some astonishing statistics highlighting the impact that a single, determined human can have on a top-order predator such as a great white shark.
Alf’s heyday was the 1950s. In January 1953, he became the first person on the planet to land a white shark that broke the barrier of the imperial ton, using only a rod, reel and brute strength.
By the time Alf hung up his rods in the mid 60s he had held seven world game-fishing records and caught six white sharks that exceeded the ton mark. As Thiele recounts: “He had brought in well over 100 white pointers during his fishing career, with a combined weight that would probably have reached 50 tons.”
Just like Cecil the lion, who was slaughtered by an American dentist on a recent hunting holiday in Zimbabwe, many of the fish Alf and others killed had names and were distinctive characters. Men like Alf might pursue a famous individual white shark for years.
Once landed, the fish would be strung up on jetties on South Australia’s west coast to be weighed and photographed and their deaths made national and even international headlines.
Given that the estimated population of adult Australian great white sharks is probably only in the thousands, it is easy to see that a few latter-day Alfs with modern equipment could quickly dispatch the nation’s white shark problem.
And there’s the rub. What Alf did to acclaim half a century ago is no different from the dentist shooting Cecil the lion. Any mug with a gun (or rod) can go out and take out a trophy predator.
But would it solve the so-called white shark population explosion? The short answer is yes, because every respected marine biologist agrees that great white sharks are an endangered species that, without careful protection, could quickly all but disappear from Australian waters.
The bigger question is whether there really is a shark problem on the north coast of NSW, be it great whites or other species that can end up biting humans, such as bull sharks.
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The official consensus from the NSW Department of Primary Industries is: no.
“There is no scientific evidence to indicate numbers of sharks are increasing,” its website says.
“Data from the Australian Shark Attack File indicates the increase in Australian shark attacks coincides with the increasing human population, more people visiting beaches, a rise in the popularity of water-based fitness and recreational activities and people accessing previously isolated coastal areas.
“The increase in shark attacks over the past two decades is consistent with international statistics of shark attacks increasing annually because of the greater numbers of people in the water.”
However, although the science is unable to confirm whether something unusual is happening on the north coast of NSW, a number of researchers are speculating that there may be some special environmental conditions that have led to an aggregation of sharks in that area this year.
There is no doubt that north coast residents, particularly surfers, are terrified, and there does seem to be a spate of incidents. But does that mean there is a shark population explosion that needs to be managed?
Even the editor of one north coast paper has this week lashed out at the coverage from metropolitan media screaming for the state government to do something.
David Kirkpatrick, the editor of the Northern Star, singled out coverage by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph of Baird’s shark summit: “The Tele described Tuesday’s shark summit in Sydney as a ‘gabfest’ and seems to be strongly advocating the introduction of shark netting here, even though surveys have shown residents are not in favour of such a measure.
“The Gold Coast Bulletin has also been trumpeting that surfers in our area are travelling up to Surfers Paradise rather than go in the water here, and the tourism industry here is being battered.”
Most Australians do not realise that great white sharks are global citizens. East coast individuals regularly travel many thousands of kilometres across to New Zealand or well up into the tropics, plunging to depths of over a kilometre. Many sharks, including the much-feared bull and tiger sharks, travel on a mind-boggling scale and exactly how they navigate their journeys or the full complexity of why they make them is not even close to being understood by science. But one thing is certain – the great whites currently on the north coast of NSW have a much bigger perspective on the Pacific than just a few northern beaches.
Their capacity to traverse the oceans is only recently being revealed through satellite tracking and, while the north coast may be a favoured haunt for some of the sharks now, in a few months’ time those same fish could be hunting in the seas around the South Island of New Zealand.
Humans have dastardly short memories. A few years ago the shark media frenzy was focused on Western Australia, when there were five fatal shark attacks between September 2011 and July 2012.
In 2013 I interviewed the scientist who runs the Australian Shark Attack File, John West, about those deaths. He told me it was a “spike” and he expected things there would return to more normal numbers.
He was correct.
West also highlighted that in 2009 Sydney had been the focus of shark activity and sensationalist media headlines. In just a few weeks in early 2009 a navy clearance diver lost a hand and most of one leg to a bull shark in the harbour. One surfer lost an arm at Bondi beach and another was severely bitten at Avalon.
But, as West emphasised, these clusters are transitory. That cluster passed and the next one somewhere else around the continent will also come and go.
The media circus moves on too.
The problem is that politicians come under immense pressure from a public that is whipped into a state of near panic, and the legacy can be devastating for the ocean’s predators.
In response to the West Australian cluster, the state government introduced a program of baited drumlines, ostensibly to catch white sharks. Instead, 163 tiger sharks were hooked and killed, even though there hadn’t been a tiger shark fatality in Perth since the 1920s.
We can probably get rid of white sharks from Australian waters. But there is nothing that will make our beaches safe. We cannot level the waves and divert the rips. Oceans are dangerous ecosystems and sharks are one of the least likely killers that a swimmer diving into the waves is likely to meet.
People who hunt and kill great whites have been sent to history’s dust bin of anachronisms belonging to a bygone era.
And there they should stay.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 02 Oct 2015.
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