Nick Carroll: What's the Real Reason Shark Encounters Have Declined on the North Coast?

20 May 2020 6 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo via Sydney Morning Herald

Photo via Sydney Morning Herald

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

Is it the sharks or is it the people? A new study looks at perhaps one reason why shark encounters are down

A couple of weeks ago, a minor shock ran through some parts of the Lennox-Ballina surf community.

It was rumoured that the smart drumline array — set off that shark-conscious coast just after the awful events of 2015 — was about to be removed.

Not true, as it turned out. The drumlines, which have been responsible for catching and tagging nearly 350 great white sharks in the area, weren’t going anywhere.

But the trigger was real for surfers who heard this rumour. “People are still twitchy about this stuff,” long time Lennox surfer/shaper Phil Myers told us. “They’re (sharks) not going away.”

Exactly how the drumlines have changed things as far as human/shark interactions go is open to question. Unlike meshing, they’re set to attract just the big three prey species — bull, tiger and white — and rarely kill their captives. Instead, contract fishos take the sharks off the hook, tag them, and release well offshore.

Tag data has shown that following this process, whites in particular are slow to return to close coastal waters.

Maybe this has something to do with why there’s been such a big decrease in attacks in the area since the drumlines were installed.

But what if it hasn’t? What if it’s as much to do with how the humans are behaving?

A recent study has taken a look at just that.

The study, funded through the NSW Shark Management Strategy and conducted by a UTS team led by social scientist Nick McClean, examined how people made decisions about whether to go in the water or not, given the shark presence and recent history in the area. It involved 60 people in four workshops in Ballina, Byron and Lismore, and included a range of people, from the highly interested and informed to the casual beachgoer.

It also seems to be the only one of its kind in the world — pretty amazing when you consider the subject matter.

“Everyone is the study is making a choice,” says Nick. Go in the water? Don’t? Wait till later?

The study revealed several different groups, with different risk tolerances, and different reasons for making their minds up about the issue. Family beachgoers were most influenced by the safety measures they could see in action: lifeguard patrols, signage, numbers of other people in the water, the presence of drones. Young surfers and swimmers were reliant on the example of others: if their friends were out or not, or what an older relative might have explained to them.

Experienced surfers relied on their own judgement and observation, and their sense of what human/shark interaction might mean. Was it always a threat, or was there an element of co-existence? And, well, was it pumping?

Nick says he was “interested in what happens in the moment, when people make that choice."

“A big part of it comes down to a personal understanding of the risks. The most common thing is that an alarm sounds and some surfers don’t come out of the water, and then there’s other people’s reactions to that. The reaction might be, ‘You’re not doing the right thing,’ ‘You’re being careless,’ or ‘You’re putting people in danger.’"

“But in a lot of cases the surfers are not just blindly saying, ‘I don’t care.’ They’re looking around, weighing up multiple factors, and making a call based on their experiences.”

Importantly, the study found distinct changes in behaviour across the range. People in the workshops were on the lookout for all sorts of things: weather conditions (ie. “spooky days”) when shark activity might be more apparent, information on shark locations, lifeguard presence, and the number of fellow surfers in the water. (“I’ll only surf in a group now,” was one response quoted by the study. You know behaviour’s changed when surfers like crowds.)

If you’ve been surfing forever, you might think, “Well duhh! People act differently about going in the water when there’s sharks!”

But this is part of how governments make their own decisions, about how to best deal with such issues, where there’s a wide range of thought and opinion on a subject — not to mention a fair degree of emotion. They need data to justify those decisions.

Nick says there’s a lot of literature about human/wildlife contact in other places — India, for example, where tigers and elephants confront villagers in full-contact battles for territory. Sharks versus surfers? Plenty of anecdote, but as mentioned above, almost no study.

This might be the first step on an interesting road. Maybe, down the track, it’ll be part of Ballina keeping its drumlines.

artwork via UTS / drsuepillans.com

artwork via UTS / drsuepillans.com

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