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State of fear: what should we do about sharks in New South Wales?

Sharks often bite people less to kill and more as a mistake. pacificklaus/flickr, CC BY-NC

State of fear: what should we do about sharks in New South Wales?

Sharks have long been a symbol of the terror of the deep seas and a source of trepidation among Australian beachgoers. But a recent cluster of dangerous encounters with sharks in New South Wales has raised new concerns among the public and sparked fresh calls for culls.

Fears of more casualties are also changing the way our beaches are being used. Some high schools have reportedly cancelled their surf programs, and several surf lifesaving clubs recently announced that they will seek other venues for “Little Nipper” training.

So what’s actually happening with the sharks?

Shark attacks or shark bites?

Negative interactions between sharks and people can range from light (small lacerations and stitches required) to severe (large pieces of flesh removed, including limbs).

All are routinely termed “attacks”, but as this emotive word conjures up a perception of maliciousness on the shark’s behalf it is not a very useful description. There is a recent move to rename shark attacks as “shark bites”, in the same way that injuries from aggressive dogs on humans are documented, thus lessening the incorrect perception that all interactions with sharks are fatal.

Due to their public interest, there are good data sets on negative interactions with sharks in both Australia and globally that span centuries. Comprehensive data on shark bites, including those in NSW, are collected and compiled in the publicly available Australian Shark Attack File (ASAF), which was established in 1984 and is held at Taronga Zoo.

ASAF data and associated publications do show that shark bites have increased over the past couple of decades, from an average of 6.5 incidents annually from 1990 to 2000, to 15 incidents per year since 2000.

Interestingly, however, while the number of shark bites has recently increased, the number of deaths resulting from the bites remains consistently low (an average of 1.1 people per year over the past 20 years).

Why are fatalities from sharks not increasing in proportion with the increase in shark bites? If sharks were the premeditated killing machines portrayed by the media and entertainment industries, why do most negative shark-human interactions involve only one bite and not the victim being consumed?

Feeding habits

Answers lie in the way that sharks feed. Sharks are apex predators that actively hunt their prey, which can include fish, seals and whales. But they are also opportunistic scavengers that feed on dying or dead organisms, as do terrestrial predators such as bears and lions.

It is important to understand this because it means that sharks are not always the hunters they are painted as. A surfer in a wetsuit paddling on a board could be mistaken for sick or dead prey, floating on the water. The shark may give an exploratory bite to assess. Unfortunately such exploratory bites can remove substantial tissue and even limbs in humans, particularly if the shark is over two metres in length, and may thus be fatal.

Data from ASAF support the concept that sharks are not actively hunting humans as prey, and that a bite is more often a “mistake” by the shark. The vast majority of bites occur on a victim’s extremities (legs, arms), consistent with exploratory bites by scavenging sharks. The shark usually disappears after the initial bite. There are no accounts of a person also being bitten when coming to the aid of a bitten victim in the water.

More people, more encounters

While the number of negative interactions with sharks has risen this year, there have been previous clusters of interactions in ASAF data. A peak of 74 incidents was documented in the 1930s. Considering the method of reporting at the time, it is highly likely that this number was greater.

While it is easy to assume that today’s increase in negative shark-human interactions is directly related to an increase in the number of aggressive sharks in the vicinity, there are other hypotheses that can explain this pattern. John West, the curator of ASAF explains that more contact between sharks and people has also resulted from an increase in the number of people and how they use the beach.

The number of incidents and their locations coincide with an increase in the number of people residing in rural coastal areas, particularly in northern NSW. There has also been a steady increase in the use of beaches and water activities over past decades, which has resulted in more people being in the water.

People have also extended their time in the water, with an increase in the use of wetsuits. Methods for reporting negative shark interactions have also improved. All such reported interactions attract substantial media attention in recent times, leading to the perception of proportionally more interactions than actually occur.

It is also highly probable that the behaviour of the sharks may have changed and not the number of sharks in the water. Sharks are known to come into shore to follow baitfish, which have been prevalent in the shallow waters of beaches this year. It is difficult to know the probability of this without rigorous scientific data that track the patterns of movements of the sharks.

To kill, or not to kill

Following the recent spate of bites this year, controversy exists as to whether beaches in northern NSW should be meshed - which has been known to indiscriminately kill sharks. However, negative shark interactions continue to occur in beaches from Newcastle to Wollongong that are periodically meshed by the Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program.

Since 2005, shark bites have occurred at 13 of the 51 meshed beaches. This should not be too surprising because the nets are only 150 m long and 6 m high, allowing marine organisms to swim over, under and around them. Shark nets are not continuous curtains of net that completely enclose areas for swimming, as in the case of the stinger nets found in northern Queensland. Moreover, they are deployed for only part of the year.

But experience from Western Australia shows that shark culls also do not work. Instead, NSW Premier Mike Baird has announced an A$250,000 shark tagging and surveillance program alongside an international “shark summit” to be held this month.

Baird’s more measured and rational approach to beach safety should be welcomed as a valuable addition to a debate so often driven by fear.