Originally published by 9news on 12 Nov 2018
In the past 50 days, Australia’s east coast has witnessed five serious shark attacks, one fatal.
A month later, a shark latched onto the arm of a mine worker off a New South Wales nudist beach, north of Newcastle, that resulted in him being admitted to hospital.
Last Monday, Daniel Christidis, a 33-year-old Victorian urologist, was also bitten by a shark in Cid Harbour in the Whitsundays on the first day of a yachting holiday. He didn’t survive the attack.
Three days later, another shark dragged a surfer from his board on NSW’s far north coast and left him with a 20cm bite wound on his calf.
The spate of incidents has sparked an urgent meeting between multiple levels of Queensland government, tourism representatives and marine experts to try and work out how to best prevent swimmers in the future being mauled.
The discussions have spanned everything from culls to better education of tourists and the possible use of a world-first technology designed to replace shark nets and drum lines.
It’s enough to leave beachgoers and authorities wondering why sharks act the way they do, and what Australia can do to avoid more deaths.
There’s no real answer, yet.
“I don’t think scientists really have the answer at the moment, unfortunately. That’s what has people perplexed,” Perth-based shark biologist Amanda Elizabeth told 9News.com.au.
“There could be a number of reasons, and researchers need the chance to get in (waters near recent attacks) and have a look.”
“It could be a matter of a chance in increased rainfall, or water temperature, or bait fish in the area.”
Despite that, Ms Elizabeth said there are behavioural traits of sharks involved in attacks that could provide some insight into the attacks.
“With Great Whites in particular, they go through a period of transition. When they’re young they feed on fish and as they get into the sub-adult age, they transition into eating mammals,” she said.
“They go through that period of, what is on their diet now? It’s just a matter of trying and when they try, it’s with their teeth – That can be quite dire for humans.
“We know in Cid Harbour, it’s been tiger sharks – they’re not whites. Tiger sharks have a much broader dietary spectrum. They consume turtles and a lot more different species than Great Whites.”
So far this year 22 shark attacks have been recorded around Australia, according to data provided to 9News.com.au by Taronga Zoo.
Ten of those occurred in Western Australia, seven in NSW, four in Queensland and another in Victoria.
While there isn’t yet enough research out there to completely predict the behaviour of a shark, and therefore know when attacks could happen, Ms Elizabeth said there are environmental signs people can take note of to avoid the animals.
“When you’re in murkier water, there is a greater opportunity for a shark to predate without having any counter-attacks – it’s safer for them,” she said.
“People can do things like avoiding murky water, or swimming in areas away from fish or whales… If there has been an attack in an area, don’t go swimming in that area – be smart about it and minimise your risk.
“We still need to keep in perspective that shark attacks are still a very, very rare occurrence… We’re not on their normal prey spectrum.”
How are attacks being prevented?
In Australia, there is a shift away from traditional prevention methods like shark nets and drum line bait traps to new technologies designed to ward the creatures off.
“We could absolutely be doing more,” Lindsay Lyon, the CEO of Ocean Guardian, told 9News.com.au
“What we have today is that we’ve got one stake in the sand and that is that we’ve got proven technology for personal deterrents for surfing and diving.”
He said a Federal Government Senate inquiry into shark hazards found there was no evidence shark nets were preventing shark attacks. He said the same could be said about drum lines.
“Sharks have these small little electrical receptors in their snout, they also have sight, smell and hearing, but they use these electrical receptors, the same we use touch,” Mr Lyon said.
“We create a very powerful electrical field, which causes the receptors to spasm, they get oversensitive and it turns the shark away.
“When we go into the ocean, we need to accept the risk of the adventure. If we want to reduce our risk, we can do so – there is proven technology beyond any doubt to significantly reduce the risk.”
According to Mr Lyon, the technology is the way forward, but has only been supported on a government level by Western Australia.
In WA, residents who buy Shark Shield packs for diving or surfing are offered government-backed rebates.
“Shark attack rates will continue as they have done for 30 years to increase I don’t think there’s any doubt on that,” Mr Lyon said.
“Australia is known as the shark attack capital of the world and it affects our tourism by one percent – it costs the Australian economy nearly half-a-billion dollars a year.
“Technology is an answer, and it’s been proven to be an answer, so let’s embrace it and move on.
”Next year, Ocean Guardian plans to release a series of beach Shark Shield deterrents with a 10-metre radius, designed to work in the same way as a shark net, without the net.
Mr Lyon also exclusively told 9News.com.au a partnership between Ocean Guardian and Macquarie University will look to expand the products to 50-metre radii – therefore eliminating the need for nets, anywhere.
“You’ll end up with a 100-metre electrical field in diameter to replace shark nets and drum lines, sitting on a deep-sea ocean buoy,” he said.
From an ecological point of view, Ms Elizabeth said the technology is what is needed for effective prevention.
“Moving forward we need to really utilise those new technologies and steer away from the drum lines,” she said.
“Trying to remove sharks is a very archaic and outdated and uneducated response. It doesn’t help researchers find out the reasons for attacks and at the same time it has an effect on the ecosystem.
“There are definitely better measures that you can take to minimise your risk.