A string of random attacks along a Western Australian coast line have re-energized an international fear of the great white shark, sparking a debate between the continued conservation of marine apex predators and the calling for population culls of an endangered shark species.
As tragic as those attacks are, less than 50 fatal shark attacks occur worldwide each year, a stark contrast to the 1.2 million people killed in motor accidents and the up to 2,000 that die every year in the United States from domestic violence. In 2011, the International Shark Attack File reported less than 80 shark encounters worldwide.
In addition, most shark attacks are considered “unprovoked”, meaning the encounter is often a case of mistaken identity or poor bather behavior, and the majority of circumstances in which sharks injure bathers occur during times known for elevated shark activity.
Australian marine conservation group Fin Watch suggests that most encounters and all fatalities in 2011 occurred in early mornings or late afternoons whilst swimmers bathed or surfed alone, swam in river mouths and in close proximity to seal colonies or fishing activity.
Are the Sea's Most Feared Predators Actually Prey?
Sharks are a migratory species ranging hundreds, if not thousands of miles per day. For decades, the species has been grossly misrepresented in film and media, often portrayed as a man-eating antagonist to a human victim.
Hollywood films like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and Shark Night have successfully misrepresented sharks as a species. In contrast, little media attention is given to the grim reality for shark populations, which over the course of several decades have been decimated by humans by more than 100 million sharks per year.
Understanding Sharks Is Critical to the Prolonged Safety of Bathers
The great white shark, whale shark, and tiger shark are all included on CITES Threatened Species lists and are illegally hunted for sport and trophy, even inside protected zones. Although its population trend is unknown, there are thought to be no more than 50,000 great white sharks left in the world.
Currently, there are no conclusive measures in place to promote safe and positive bather behavior despite continued claims from governing bodies and fisheries. Current management initiatives to mediate shark bites, including shark nets and pre-emptive shark culls, have done little to lower shark bite rates internationally. As of 2012, there is no evidence to support the benefits of shark cull programs proposed by governing bodies.
Rather, government bodies must work with the public to create an awareness of shark behavior. Developing strong and informed perspectives on sharks is one proposed method of positive outreach and management from Christopher Neff, a “shark politics” scholar at the University of Sydney.
Says Neff, “Educating means treating a trip to the beach as you would a trip to the bush. This shift in thinking changes our expectations of safety and preparation. Looking at the ocean as the wild means making an informed choice about the risks we are taking based on our behavior.”
Proposed management initiatives from scientists and conservationists include the restriction of activity in certain zones, with precedence in Cape Cod where swimming within 100 meters of seal colonies is strictly prohibited for bather safety.
Conservationists hope the introduction of solid education and awareness tactics will minimize the small likelihood of shark attacks on bathers whilst redefining the reputation of shark species in society.
When swimming in the ocean, how worried are you about shark attacks? Tell us in the comments.
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Elissa Sursara is an Australian environmental conservationist, filmmaker and wildlife expert working on behalf of endangered species, threatened habitats and animals in crisis. She is a celebrity ambassador for the WWF, Earth Hour and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. @ElissaSursara