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.