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How government can help us avoid shark “attacks”

The latest fatal shark bite on a surfer, north of Perth, is another in a string of terrible and random tragedies that have befallen Western Australia in the past two years. This seems to be an escalating…

A Great White shark like the one suspected of fatally attacking WA surfer Ben Linden. Wikicommons

The latest fatal shark bite on a surfer, north of Perth, is another in a string of terrible and random tragedies that have befallen Western Australia in the past two years.

This seems to be an escalating problem without a firm solution. The public is understandably anxious and politicians want to bring this all quickly to an end.

Yet, the hard truth is that shark attacks are a problem that cannot be fully solved.

Facing the truth

This reality is particularly difficult to deal with following tragic losses of life, and under often-horrific circumstances. Taking a step forward; however, to make beach-going safer requires us to use this reality: to know that more shark bites will happen and to put together a strong community-based education program that does the very best job possible at eliminating shark attacks.

No solution is perfect, but if we want to continue sharing the ocean with marine life we need to use this fact as the impetus to try new initiatives, not to declare failure.

Previous shark bite prevention methods reinforce the need to prioritise education.

Killing sharks doesn’t work

There is no evidence that state authorized shark hunts make water-use safer. Shark nets to cull sharks have not lowered the shark bite rates in New South Wales and do not cover surfing areas. A recent study using the “Shark Shield” on bait and seal decoys showed both encouraging and inconclusive results.

And just this week, the Western Australia Government set out to pre-emptively ban shark cage-diving, which is consistent with the need to look at our responsibility in preventing incidents.

The next step is to develop public education as a way to change the way we think about and use the ocean. However, I am not suggesting a brochure to reduce shark attacks. Specifics matter and communicating exactly what “education” and “change” looks like means identifying how we need to think differently, who needs to change, and what helpful tips are going to start the process. These are questions of science and society.

Education, education, education

I offer three examples from the social science side, as a doctoral researcher studying the “politics of shark attacks” in Australia, South Africa and the United States. I have reviewed how people feel and what policies follow sharks bites. Here are three examples of steps governments can take to help people avoid shark attacks:

First, education means treating a trip to “the beach” like you would a trip to “the bush.” This shift in thinking changes our expectations of safety and preparation. Looking at the ocean as the wild, (which it is) means making an informed choice about the risks we are taking based on our behaviour.

Camping alone in the wilderness is dangerous, as is surfing, swimming or snorkeling. Until there is more scientific information on shark behavior, some beaches may be placed off limits by the government. In Recife Brazil, they have made surfing illegal at certain beaches because of the number of shark attacks. Last week, the city of Chatham in Cape Cod, banned swimming within 100 meters of seals.

Secondly, state and local safety plans could identify water-user groups based on what they do, in what season they do it and how far out they go from shore. Individual strategies for surfers, snorkelers and scuba divers could be organized through community meetings and planning. Programs for swimmers are a project on their own, because changing behaviour at the beach includes educating both locals and tourists. Other water users, such as kayakers and kite surfers could be trained on what to do if they see a shark.

Third, we need to assume that the beach is not “safe.” As the wild, we presume that shark bites occur. However, since many of us (including me) love the ocean, there may be things we can consider, to better inform our decision-making and governments can tell us more. I use a “Three What’s” approach, based on a review of beach safety literature.

These include: 1.) What’s the weather; 2.) What’s the time/conditions; and 3.) What’s my behaviour? Again, there is no perfect set of questions to determine when these events will occur because shark bite incidents happen at the convergence of four points involving: weather conditions, environmental conditions, human behaviour and shark behaviour.

The 15 variables

But there needs to be a starting point; more information on this is available from the International Shark Attack File. But for me, I look at 15 variables that include:

What’s the weather?

1.) Has there been a storm, did it rain? (avoid swimming after heavy storms, particularly near sewage outfalls)

2.) Level of sunlight, cloudiness (avoid swimming in gloomy, stormy conditions)

What’s the time / environmental conditions?

3.) Time of day (avoid swimming at dawn or dusk)

4.) Time of year (avoid periods with sardine runs, seal pupping and dead whales)

5.) Temperature of the water (this depends on the species)

6.) Presence of shark’s prey (avoid swimming if there are seals, dolphins, whales or baitfish nearby)

7.) Clarity of the water (avoid swimming if the water is cloudy, muddy, or foamy)

8.) Check to see if there is natural prey available in normal locations (consider a different location if the local area is over-fished or if boats bring in fish and dump out waste)

What’s my behaviour?

9.) How far out am I in the water (closer to shore is better; avoid sand reefs, drop-offs, surf zones, and outer shelves)

10.) How long have I spent in the water (there are no guarantees, but longer can increase risk)

11.) Whether I am swimming in a group or alone (avoid swimming alone, swim in groups)

12.) Wearing a wetsuit/color (avoid contrasting colors like yellow, white and silver)

13.) Wearing jewelry (avoid wearing metal or shiny jewelry)

14.) Splashing in the water (avoid splashing when possible)

15.) Check to see if I am near a coastal construction site, outfall or other attractants (avoid areas with sewage, active fishing, or other waste).

Re-assesing our relationship with the beach

I am suggesting a fundamental change that looks at the beach as a risk-laden environment. This may be unpopular with tourism officials, but the number one goal is to reduce shark bites and fatalities on humans.

I am certain that shark conservationists share the belief that the best thing for sharks is for fewer people to face these dreadful situations. In this case, prevention is conservation. But “solutions” require government leadership to help change the view of the beach and behavior in the water.

This is a long-term proposal for a long-term problem and the test may be whether it can be sustained after the outrage and bites have passed.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Kate Rowan-Robinson

    Registered Nurse/Sexology Student

    A most sensible approach.

    Shark culling is not and never will be the answer. Every year children are taught about many dangers and potential, local threats that are found in the oceans (at least I was, way back when I was in school), such as rips, blue ring octopus, stonefish, irukandji, etc. - it would make great sense to tie avoiding shark bite into the program. As a water-loving nation with a largely coastal population we need to learn to respect the ocean and understand we are guests in anothers territory. Sharks are not guests in our territory.

    1. Nick Stafford


      In reply to Kate Rowan-Robinson

      Thank you for this essay Christoper.

      As a surfer for the last 42 years, I am concerned about sharks. I can get really anxious about it in the water - usually when I find myself the furtherest out and alone. - But I have never seen one while surfing.

      Your calm list of contributing factors to shark attacks is very helpful. I am just waiting for some bright spark to invent a shark repellant that works everytime with the sharks they are designed to repell. Am I waiting on a cloud for this type of technology

      Oh and yes, I do not support the culling of sharks, it is us who are the problem not them


    2. Scott Wilson

      Regional Manager WA

      In reply to Nick Stafford

      @ Nick Stafford... Hi Nick, Shark Deterrent systems are available and proven over many years. My disclosure is that my wife works for Shark Shield, an Australian manufacturer. Since her being with the company I have personally had the chance to speak with users who are very happy with the product. While I am yet to meet one of the many users who have depended on Shark Shield in a life threatening situation (shark attack) there are numerous personal testimonials on the Shark Shield website that will…

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  2. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    "14.) Splashing in the water (avoid splashing when possible)"
    Golly, talk about taking the fun away. I get the feeling a few of the points may not be securely based on statistically significant data. Perhaps 3 important statistically valid points that could be easily remembered might be more effective than a scatter-gun approach.

    I would like to add my own point.

    16.) Coat yourself in tabasco sauce before entering the water (sharks hate spicy food).

    1. Peter Lehne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      I surf these areas like wedge and yanchep weekly. I have been surfing for over 30 years and hav always seen the sharks all over the west coast and east coast.
      I do not agree in culling or killing a shark full stop.
      More education to the general public who surf swim and dive is a must. Been more alert about your surroundings will benefit and save lives. The east coast of Australia surfers are more aware on places to be more protected abou when surfing, or even some places been a no go zone as…

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    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Peter Lehne

      I used to dive a lot on the east coast but never seriously concerned myself with shark attacks. Although the very occasional diver has been taken from South and West Australia, I haven't heard of many cases on the East coast. Although I am sure it is possible, just so sporadic it is pointless to take precautions against when compared with the other real risks of diving.

      There does seem to be an increase of attacks on West Australia from less than 1 every 2 years, to 2 or 3 a year over 2011 and 2012.
      If this is related to increased numbers then a targeted cull might not be out of the question. But it is something for shark ecologists to determine.

  3. Dale Bloom


    I don’t think culling should be carried out, but the “Three What’s” approach is excellent, and would be suitable for most activities on the water.

    1.) What’s the weather; 2.) What’s the time/conditions; and 3.) What’s my behaviour?

  4. Denis Faubert


    Well, large W pointers eat seals, surfers look like seals, especially in dark wetsuits. However, W pointers are notoriously selective and generally cautious in selecting their prey and a wet suited surfer assuredly does not taste nor have the fat content of seals. Generally, most pointers would realize their mistake. I would look into the pointers natural prey in the area to discern if there is a shortage or some sort of anomaly in the balance.

    1. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Denis Faubert

      The recent shark attacks have been sudden, which indicates the shark was not curious, but feeding. It is possible the natural food supply has declined.

      Also, any shark cage diving should be immediately banned, as it can make sharks less suspicious of humans, or actually attract sharks to humans.

  5. Andrey Zheluk

    logged in via Twitter

    The "how to avoid danger" list was amusing/scary in retrospect.

    In my late teens we did a lot of surfing near Port Lincoln in South Australia.

    We would literally drive down to the end of dusty tracks miles from anywhere.

    I remember sitting "out the back" alone at dawn, as fishing boats chugged past.

    In retrospect, this was a little silly.

    I remember thinking at the time. "This may not be the best place to be just now".

    But it was fun. And everyone left with their limbs intact.

    On a more serious note, any kind of control is only possible near populated areas.

    Certainly as teenagers we would have simply ignored signs or exhortations to stay out of the water.

    1. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Andrey Zheluk

      "Certainly as teenagers we would have simply ignored signs or exhortations to stay out of the water." -and thats why I feel that we can't get anywhere blaming sharks. If people are informed of the risks but insist on playing dice with it, well, instead of 'shark attack' maybe it needs renamed to 'suicide by shark'.

  6. Steve Pratt

    logged in via email

    I am interested (out of curiosity, not conflict) in the evidence behind the 15 variables, particularly cloudiness.

    I have tried, albeit a bit half-arsed, to track down any evidence (not necessarily peer-reviewed) that supports the suggestion that sharks are more likely to attack when it is cloudy. From memory, I worked out that this "warning" might stem from early work that says that shark attacks are more common in cloudy water.

    Also, I think there is even more intuitive variable missing - don't drag a bag of dead fish around with you (ie, don't go spearfishing).

  7. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    When I took up spearfishing in my late teens I told my panicking mother that the big risk of spearfishing was being killed while driving to where I was going to dive. I had no stats to back this up but it seemed a good line at the time and my mother got to like the supply of lobsters and fish that went with the spear fishing.
    There are no stats on the number of people killed driving to go surfing or diving but the minute numbers of people killed by sharks each year suggest that what I told my mother was well and truly true.

  8. Jim Codde

    Health Service Planner

    Shark attack has been a constant companion for over 30 years but I'd never consider ceasing to swim, scuba dive, wind surf or kite surf just because of that fear. The pleasure each of these activities give me far outweigh the small risk of anyone saying "well he died doing what he enjoyed".

    Culling isn't the answer and I agree, more of the community needs to be better educated. I like the three 'What's" but query whether there is statistical evidence behind some of the longer list of safety measures. It would be useful to separate fact from possibility?

  9. John Browne
    John Browne is a Friend of The Conversation.


    17) Don't whizz in your wettie - evidently sharks have a very keen sense of "smell".
    18) Don't surf with your dog - they are genetically similar to and "smell" the same as seals
    19) If attacked punch them in the snout (with the arm you have left)

    Dont ask me for sources - just surfer folk law, although 19) was tested on Mythbusters and considered "plausible".

  10. David Leigh

    logged in via Facebook

    I agree with Denis Faubert, the natural food source could be in decline. We know that the extra carbon intake into the oceans is affecting calcium carbonate production and that, as a result, crustaceans are often without a hard protective shell. This makes them vulnerable to other species and can create irregularities in the food chain IE; some species disappearing and others growing larger and therefore harder to kill by natural predators. Speaking to West Australian marine biologists, as I have…

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  11. Eddy Schmid


    Had a good laugh at the paranoid responce to another shark attack. The idea of Govt intervention to prevent such attacks is ludicrous indeed.
    In W.A.'s SUNDAYTIMES published on the 15 July 2012, it was stated and I quote; Surfers had reported sightings of a large shark in the vicinity four days previous of the attack. Apparently it was common knowledge amongst the surfing fraternity that a big shark was cruising around in the waters they played in.
    Now the question we need to ask, is if these folks KNEW there was a big shark cruising around in the waters they played in, why on earth would anyone go into them until an all clear was given ?
    Another question is, why is the shark being blamed for doing what comes naturaly in his own back yard ?
    There's only one group at fault for these fatalities, and that group is called MAN. Once again, Darwinism rules.

  12. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh


    Humans killed by sharks each year: 5-10.

    Sharks killed by humans each year: 30-80 million. Yes, million.

    Global shark numbers are down by something like 80-90% over the last five decades or so. The bigger question is not how can we stop sharks attacking us (though each death is a tragedy), but how we can avoid sending a creature that is older than the dinosaurs (functionally or actually) extinct?

  13. Nick Kermode

    logged in via email

    Christopher, i think your heart is in the right place but this article is a mish mash of shark misinformation that is so common most people just completely accept it. Rather than rebutt each point I would urge you, and others, to read West 2011 and references within for actual stats and science concerning human interaction with sharks, then look back at your list. I think you will then understand how unhelpful it is. Whilst your list sounds intuitive and sensible it has no basis in fact whatsoever which West's research and collation shows. The fact remains that sharks are always there and do an astonishingly good job of not confusing more than couple of humans, out of the over 100 million that enter their habitat in Australia every year, for their prey.

  14. Lily Eva

    logged in via email

    the hard truth is that shark attacks are a problem that cannot be fully solved.

  15. John Brady

    logged in via Facebook

    A misleading partisan article. In Neff's section "Killing Sharks Doesn't Work", he omits that NSW shark nets have dramatically reduced fatal shark attacks. He only writes "Shark nets to cull sharks have not lowered the shark bite rates in New South Wales and do not cover surfing areas."
    Also, NSW shark nets cull larger sharks off most beaches from Newcastle to Wollongong, so his statement that they "do not cover surfing areas" is nonsensical. I'm disappointed - I come to the Conversation for quality.