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July 19, 2024

The myths about sharks and shark attacks debunked

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Sharks, Bankers and Politicians, L to R: SCU’s Dr Daniel Boucher, photo journalist Nigel Marsh, Ballina MP Tamara Smith and Greens banker/surfer/ politician Peter Whish Wilson. Photo Jeff Poole

Chris Dobney

As an antidote to the endless promises, promises of the state election campaign I recently attended a panel presentation on ‘Politicians, Bankers and Sharks’ hosted by the Byron Greens.

In the same week, I had interviewed shark attack survivor Sam Edwardes who, despite a great white taking ‘a big chunk’ out of his leg, said he was keen to get back in the water as soon as his body was able.

The panel brought some focussed intelligence to bear on the subject for a change, rather than the usual Murdoch media beat-ups we are used to.

On it were Southern Cross University shark expert Dr Daniel Boucher, underwater photo journalist Nigel Marsh, Greens politician, former banker and keen surfer Peter Wish Wilson, and our own Ballina Greens MP Tamara Smith – who has been at the pointy end of the debate since she came to office.

Myth 1 – All sharks are dangerous

According to Nigel, there are more than 500 species of shark and a dozen of them are potentially dangerous with three responsible for most of the attacks on people: bull sharks, great whites and tiger sharks.

Did you know the ‘average’ shark is just one metre long with teeth one millimetre long?

‘I’ve dived with great whites and they usually take off when they see you,’ Nigel said. ‘Tiger sharks are very shy and bull sharks are like dogs: some will bite but most are scared.’

Myth 2 – The shark population is exploding

Daniel explained that the Sydney netting program caught lots of sharks up until the 1970s but numbers since then have plummeted.

He estimates there are currently about 750 adults and 4,500 juveniles of ‘dangerous’ breeds off the NSW coastline at any one time. But, he adds, one in four juveniles die each year, so the population is ‘just stable’.

Myth 3 – Sharks target humans as prey

Daniel said sharks ‘neither target nor avoid’ humans, while Nigel – who has dived with thousands– said they do not target humans as prey.

The consensus seemed to be that most shark attacks happen from behind, and that when they meet a person face to face most sharks are unlikely to attack.

A variation of this myth is the so called ‘rogue shark’ argument, that some animals get a ‘taste for human blood’.

Daniel said that if this were the case ‘you would expect to see multiple attacks by the same animal yet there is no evidence to support this. They usually don’t hang around that long,’ he said.

Myth 4 – Shark nets prevent shark attacks

Contrary to the popular imagination, shark nets do not enclose beaches. Most shark nets are a short stretch of netting between two buoys, just below the waterline and stretching for about 100 metres. They are usually removed in rough weather. Sharks can swim under and around them.

According to Daniel, most sharks caught in nets are caught while swimming out – rather undermining the protection argument.

He added that people do get attacked at netted beaches – and also where there are drum lines.

What about drum lines?

The panel then turned its attention to possible solutions.

The NSW government has removed shark nets from the northern NSW coastline following concerted public pressure on the back of very few sharks caught and lots of ‘bycatch’ (including dolphins and endangered turtles) getting killed in them.

But their key replacement has been the so-called ‘smart drum line’: baited hooks that catch sharks, which are then tagged with a radio transmitter and released.

The catch-and-release program is itself controversial, with no figures available about the longevity of the sharks after they are caught and tagged.

Nigel described drum lines as the ‘lesser of two evils’ while Daniel said, ‘No government is going to get rid of the nets without putting something else in place.’

Humane alternatives

So what else could be put in place?

Tamara advocated for the Shark Spotting program, based on a South African model. She funded a pilot study covering Byron Bay beaches out of her expense account but said ‘the government wouldn’t touch it’.

Also described were the so-called ‘eco-barriers’ made of plastic that have been successful at some WA beaches but were destroyed during a storm when they were trialled at Ballina.

Peter Whish Wilson described a new technology called ‘clever buoys’ which are loaded with an algorithm that recognises the sounds and movements made by target shark species, and which are programmed to ‘learn’, so increasing their accuracy over time.

Sadly, but somewhat predictably, with no Australian government interested in purchasing or trialing them, the company is looking to move offshore and set up in California.

Also discussed were personal protection devices, including bands or boards that transmit frequencies that sharks apparently dislike.

A member of the audience also volunteered his product, a surfboard wax impregnated with the pheromones of dead sharks – phew!

Drones’ success

The group agreed the most promising new technology involved drones, which are already being rolled out to Surf Life Saving Clubs, mostly as a search and rescue device, but which are already showing that they can spot sharks beneath the water line.

As with all risks we take in life, however, the panel reinforced that far more people are killed on the road than they are by shark attacks. Ultimately, personal responsibility is the key.

On this note, Peter concluded by saying that work is being undertaken to establish a ‘shark danger’ tool, much like the way the RFS assesses fire danger.

We know that murky waters are an issue for bull sharks, that tigers tend to be an evening and morning predator and whites tend to bite in the middle of the day. What this research would do is to drill down further into things like weather conditions, tide and bait balls to come up with a tool that can more accurately predict shark danger.

At the end of the day, we don’t need to kill sharks – we just need to avoid them.

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  1. The reaction against the Murdoch press fear campaigns is entirely understandable but the effort to somehow sanitise and “bambify” sharks, particularly the white sharks that have been responsible for most of the recent attacks in this area is becoming faintly ludicrous. It’s also insulting to coastal communities and ocean users who deal with them on a daily basis.

    Surfers are well educated here. We know only a few species of shark are dangerous. We also know what science has known for years. They, particularly white sharks, are opportunistic, apex, ambush predators that like to inhabit the surf zone.

    This puts them into contact with surfers where they display a range of behaviours ranging from disinterest, to curiosity, aggressive circling and bumping and attacks that range from a mouth and spit to a full blown strike from below. Consequences can be fatal, severe maiming or modest injury or no injury.

    This makes them a dangerous animal. Not a monster.

    Smart drum lines seem to be the least worst option available at the moment to ameliorate the impacts of shark attacks in this area. And those attacks have been mounting in number. Sam Edwardes, Lee Jonson (Grimace), Cooper Allen, Sam Morgan, Jade Fitzpatrick, Seneca Rus, Matt Lee, Craig Ison, Tadashi Nakahara, Jabez Reitman ….there are others.

    The risks need to be understood regionally and it’s risible to suggest the risk profile for Ballina/Byron surfers has not changed, and changed in a major way since 2014. All the attacks above had consequences, personal and community.

    Drones have some use but probably not much. If they launch at 9am what happens to all the people before that. Cloudy days, windy days?
    The shark spotting program is even less suited. We simply don’t have enough of the high vantage point headlands spaced closely enough like they do in Capetown.

    Smart drum lines at the very least give us real time info of when shark aggregations are happening. That gives us the most accurate information possible, in conjunction with the listening stations about the risk profile.

    It’s a small risk, but it’s very far from insignificant for Byron/Ballina surfers and their families.

    • No one is forced to go into the ocean which is the home of Sharks after all. Humans seem to have this entitlement mentality that nature has to give way to Human activities. Where else are Sharks supposed to go when we decide its playtime for us? If you enter the ocean it is always a risk but a very small risk that you encounter a Shark. If you get injured it is on you and not on the Shark.

  2. Oh the panel need to get over it and stop the ongoing shark hate. Sharks were here first. If they don’t like sharks stay out of the ocean. There’s more chance of being savaged by a wild sheep everyone knows this. Get over it.

  3. Re; Sharkbait, the trouble with your reply to the panel, is that without comprehending what they said before you wrote, you look troubled and wayward.
    The bottom line is the panel was an exercise in platitudes.
    Selling to the converted if you like.

  4. Patronizing shark incidents by saying things like ‘I’ve dived with great whites and they usually take off when they see you’ is not helpful. Most of us understand that it is the times that sharks do not take off that there is a problem. For instance if a shark is feeding it is unlikely to take off. Sharks are attracted to vibrations and movements and so humans are no different to fish in this way.
    Most shark attacks are horrific. I think surfers on the North Coast are brave and need to be very aware these days given the number of sharks incidents in the area. I live on the south coast and my local beach had one serious attack a couple of years ago. Smart drumlines were implemented for six months not long after and although they caught (and released) quite a few juvenile white and tiger sharks (2-3m), they didn’t catch as many as I expected which gave me a greater sense of confidence of being safe in the water. Basically, the lesser sharks there are about, the more safe you are.

    • Well said Jim. Hey isn’t it weird how lots of shark “victims” get Stockholm Syndrome and fall in love with their attacker? Its funny how snake survivors don’t get this syndrome but shark victims have an unusually high amount of members suffering this bizarre condition post shark attack. Strange days Jimbo. Scientism. Again.


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