What's going on with the shark attacks in Western Australia?

24 Oct 2011 0 13,476 VIEWS

Words by Dan Wyer

With three fatal shark attacks in the past few months, and constant sightings of large sharks lurking meters from popular surfing and swimming beaches, the threat of shark attack has moved a little too close to home for many Western Australian surfers. Metropolitan and regional W.A beaches, including Mullaloo and Cottesloe in Perth and Gracetown, Bunker Bay and Prevally, have all seen frequent closures, while surfers and beachgoers on Rottnest Island were kept out of the water after the weekend’s fatal attack on a 32-year old American man diving alone near the Fruitbowls and Starks Bay surf breaks.

Local surfers have taken note. Many in the South West now refuse to surf through the dawn or dusk periods and always surf with others in the water; quiet solo sessions at isolated breaks are a thing of the past. Some have even refused to enter the water again.

It’s a hot topic of conversation in the South West. But why are there so many shark sightings and attacks, where are they congregating and, short of staying ashore, how can we minimise the chance of attack?

The Problem

So why has this recent spate of attacks occurred? Many suggestions are being thrown around. One popular theory is that increases in seal populations and the number of whales migrating through the region are a major contributing factor. Dead whales floating at sea soon become huge burley balls, attracting sharks from far and wide. Recently a baby whale carcass washed ashore in South West WA during a large Winter swell; it’s now sitting 10m high of the high tide mark near Torpedo Rocks, half way between the popular Yallingup and Smiths beach surf breaks. Due to its inaccessible location the authorities have decided to leave the whale to decompose naturally - something Yallingup surfers find a little hard to swallow.

Despite anecdotal reports from local surfers and fisherman of a strong increase in shark numbers coming close in shore in recent years, Dr Rory McAuley, a shark research scientist with the W.A fisheries Department, believes ‘an increase in numbers was possible, but not yet proven’. 

What studies have shown is an increase in the number of shark attacks.  According to records kept by Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, 194 people have been killed by sharks in Australia over the past 200 years – an average of about one each year. Western Australia alone has seen four fatal attacks and three other near-fatal encounters in the past 18 months, and a more recent study published by the CSIRO found the number of shark attacks in Australia had risen from an average of 6.5 incidents per year in the decade 1990-2000 to 15 incidents per year in the past decade. 

Dr Rory McAuley suggests the higher number of attacks could simply be due to the human population expanding. Not only is it getting larger, it's getting more dispersed, so people are getting into the water over a greater area of the shark's range. With this we are more likely to see an increase in shark sightings and attacks." 

The Solutions

So what is being done about reducing the risk of shark attacks on humans? There has been plenty of noise coming from all sides of this debate. Some prominent local surfers and fisherman in Western Australia are calling for a shark cull. “Hunt them down and shoot these man eaters,” was one recent remark. 

After the most recent fatal attack on Rottnest Island the W.A government has not ruled out a shark cull with Premier Barnett announcing, “his government will consider shark culls in the future following the shark attack that killed an American man”.

Mr Barnett described the man's death as "tragic" and ordered that the shark responsible to be caught and killed.

But he says the Government will be cautious when considering shark culls.

"We'll certainly look at that as a government, but I don't think we should rush into it. We will look at the situation very carefully," he said.

Mr Barnett said he did not believe the string of shark attacks would damage WA's tourist reputation but urged all West Australians to take special care in going to the beach and swimming.

Mr Barnett also said his government will review whether to increase the numbers of sharks that commercial fisherman were allowed to catch, following reports from fishermen that shark numbers had increased significantly.

He also said his government would look at increasing aerial shark patrols over popular WA beaches.

But not everyone believes shark culling is the way to go. Many other local surfers claim the plain old fact: Sharks live in the ocean, we don’t. We are in their territory and they are at the top of the food chain.  “That’s something we humans find hard to take,” said one local. 

The scientific solution is a little more complex. Tagging and tracking of the sharks is the common method. A satellite tracking/tagging program by the CSIRO and the W.A Fisheries Department has successfully tagged Great Whites between South Australia and Western Australia over the past decade, to collect information on the movements and behaviour of white sharks in the region.  It is hoped that a better understanding of this species’ occurrence off WA’s beaches may ultimately help to reduce the risk of attacks on people.

WA fisheries Dr Rory McAuley, said these new receivers could directly alert public safety agencies if tagged sharks came close to monitored beaches.

“The data we collect will help us understand when, where and why white sharks visit our beaches and the communication capabilities of these new receivers may allow us to warn beach goers of a tagged shark’s presence before they encounter each other,” Dr McAuley said.

So far reports suggest the tagged sharks have kept away from Metro beaches with only one being detected west of Rottnest Island. The study revealed how highly mobile the Great Whites are, with one recently tracked moving over 2500km from Port Lincoln in South Australia to Rottnest Island over 28 days. 

Dr Rory McAuley hopes the data collected would improve understanding of shark movements and how they relate to attacks.

Other opinions suggest shark nets be placed along Perth’s popular beaches including Scarborough, Cottesloe and Port beach have also been instrumental in preventing attacks.

Aren’t white sharks protected in Australian waters?

Under WA legislation for State waters, white sharks are on the list of “totally protected fish” within the relevant legislation*. The relevant extract referring to white sharks is outlined below –

46. Totally protected fish:
A person must not —
(a) take;
(b) have in the person’s possession;
(c) sell or purchase;
(d) consign; or
(e) bring into the State or into WA waters,
any totally protected fish.
The WA Department of Fisheries have been ordered to hunt and kill the shark responsible for the recent deaths. On the exemption from the legislation Chair of WA’s Shark Hazard Committee, Bruno Mezzatesta commented, “The first step of any operational activity to deal with a shark hazard would be to get people out of the water. Current policy, in relation to the taking of any great white shark, allows its destruction only in the event that a member of the public is in clear and immediate danger of being attacked.”
 
“Under Section 7 (2) of the Fish Resources Management Act, Fisheries and Marine Officers, members of the WA Police Force and Wildlife Officers from DEC have an exemption to take a great white shark for the purpose of public safety in State waters, but only under the specific direction of the Department of Fisheries CEO or – when the CEO is unavailable – the department’s Operations Manager who is overseeing the incident.”
 
“There has not been an instance where a shark has been destroyed, because it posed a risk to public safety that could not be managed in other ways.”
 
“A shark posing an immediate and clear threat would have to be first caught and brought alongside a vessel of suitable size and destroyed by a means approved by the CEO or Operations Manager at the time and those means could vary significantly depending on the resources available, the circumstances on the day and any risks posed.”
 
“There would be no need to consult the Federal Government, when the shark hazard is identified in State waters.”

Valerie Taylor has been diving for more than 50 years. She was a champion spearfisher and has spent more time underwater off Australia's coast than most oceanic scientists, biologists and shark authorities. We recently interviewed Valerie and asked her about her experiences with sharks...

How to Minimise the Risk

The Taronga Zoo, who manage the Australian Shark File suggest the following tips for minimising your chance of attack on their website

Stay calm! Some stated methods of repelling sharks could, given different conditions and different sized animals, result in an altering of the shark's initial response and may unintentionally provoke an attack response in the animal that it was meant to deter. Leave the area as quickly and as quietly as possible. However, if an attack is imminent try to keep the shark in sight and if it gets too close then any action you take may disrupt the attack pattern, such as hitting the shark's nose, gouging at its eyes, making sudden body movements, blowing bubbles, etc.


Other shark stories on Coastalwatch:

Extinction with Minimum Chips

Sharks rock out to ACDC

No Sharks? No Thanks!


*The relevant legislation is Part 5, Division 2, section 46 of the FRMA - Totally protected fish.  White sharks are prescribed as totally protected fish under Schedule 2, Part 2 of the FRMR.

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