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Sharks Kill Surfer, Reigniting Net Debate in Australia

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
for National Geographic News
January 28, 2005
 
Last month two great white sharks killed an 18-year-old surfer several
hundred yards from a crowded beach near Adelaide, in South Australia.

The attack has served to spotlight the ongoing debate down under over the steps states take to safeguard beachgoers in Australia, which is now in the midst of its summer season.

Popular swimming beaches along the length of the Queensland and New South Wales coastlines, for example, are netted to prevent sharks from coming too close to shore—and to give people peace of mind when they step into the water.

Environmental groups oppose the nets, saying they are potentially dangerous to marine life and prevent the sharks' free movement. The state governments maintain that human life is more important.

Meanwhile, bathers taking a dip in the states of South Australia, Western Australia, and Victoria are not offered any such protection.

In the past 40 years there has only been one fatal shark attack at the 134 beaches protected by shark nets. Yet there have been 15 deaths in South Australia, 12 in Western Australia, and 7 in Victoria—all states that lack shark nets along their beaches.

These antinet state governments continue to rule out netting, citing the damage they can cause to marine life.

The Western Australian Fisheries Minister, Kim Chance, is not convinced about the safety that nets offer to humans.

"The general belief now is that nets not only prevent protection, they may attract sharks, because fish get caught in the nets, and sharks come in to eat them," Chance said.

Wil Zacharin, executive director of fisheries of the Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Resources, said introducing netting is "not feasible" and that "there is more danger driving to the beach than on the beach."

Net Cost

The netting debate reappeared the week before Christmas, when 18-year-old Nick Peterson was killed by two great white sharks. He was surfing off the coast known as the Great Australian Bight near Adelaide, South Australia.

Almost immediately there were calls for the sharks to be hunted and shot, although Peterson's family said they wanted the enormous creatures left alone.

States with nets in place immediately said Peterson's death could not have happened in their waters.

The New South Wales fisheries minister, Ian Macdonald, believes netted beaches are safer beaches for swimmers, surfers, divers, and snorkelers.

"In the years prior to the implementation of this project, there was virtually a death every year from shark attack," Macdonald said.

"Without the nets I guess it would be safe to assume that there would be a higher death rate among swimmers."

But Macdonald and his Queensland counterpart are criticized by the Humane Society International, an environmental group that has staged a long campaign against the nets.

Humane Society activist Nicola Benyon said the nets should at least be removed in Australia's winter months to avoid the regular entanglement of migrating humpback whales along Australia's eastern coastline.

"The Queensland and New South Wales shark-control programs kill hundreds of innocent marine animals every year, many of them threatened species," Benyon said.

"There are alternatives to the destructive nets and [baited hooks]."

Of particular concern is the grey nurse shark, a smaller, less predatory shark living off the coast of New South Wales and Queensland. Its numbers have plummeted to around 300.

Misunderstood?

Barry Bruce, a marine biologist with the Australian government Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organisation (CSIRO), said very little is known about sharks and that such ignorance can breed unnecessary suspicion among humans.

To try to increase knowledge of the little-studied creatures, Bruce is part of a team monitoring the progress of four tagged white sharks in South Australia.

The sharks—named Rolf, Bomber, Michael, and Sam C—were fitted with tracking tags at North Neptune Island near Port Lincoln, South Australia, late last year.

The male sharks are nearly 13 feet (4 meters) long and weigh up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms). They traveled between 310 and 430 miles (500 and 700 kilometers) during the first three weeks of the monitoring program.

"Managing the impact of human activities on white sharks in Australian waters is a complex challenge, combining the interests of public safety, commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, and conservation," Bruce said.

"But information on the status and behavior of white sharks in Australian waters is limited and often speculative. We're addressing this information gap on white sharks through research that examines their movement patterns, linkages between populations and favored habitats, and their biological characteristics."

CSIRO has been tagging and tracking white sharks since 2000. Migration and some behavioral patterns have started to emerge.

"[White sharks] seem to spend extended periods in one area when food resources are available, then make relatively rapid and directed movement away, presumably in response to food availability or reproductive cues," Bruce said.

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