This Winter we have been rocked by a spate of shark encounters on the east coast of Australia. Over a period of 5 weeks during June and July there were 4 encounters, with 3 fatalities.
But does that mean there are more sharks in the water?
Here are some statistics for you to consider:
- There are over 510 species of shark worldwide. 182 of these shark species have been found in Australian waters, but only 3 breeds are known to be dangerous to humans – the Great White Shark, the Tiger Shark and the Bull Shark.
- So far this year there have been 5 shark attack fatalities, and last year there were none. This compares to 248 people who lost their lives from drowning in our waterways (beaches, oceans, harbours, rivers, lakes and swimming pools) between the 1st July 2018 and 30th June 2019.2 When getting in the water we are more likely to drown than to be attacked by a shark.
- According to the Australian Shark Attack File, only 27% of shark encounters in Australian waters are fatal, with a further 27% of cases resulting in no injury at all to the human.
As surfers and ocean lovers it is impossible to keep us away from the water; however, we are on the front line every day when we are out there. We asked a few questions to our good friend and everyday surfer Billy Billy to get his take on being out in the line-up. Billy lives down on the northern NSW coast where a few of the recent shark encounters took place. Here are his thoughts:
Do you ever think about sharks when you enter the water? If so what do you think about?
Growing up in Australia you get used to the idea of sharks in the ocean.
Depending on where you’re surfing and the history of the place, sometimes when I’m further out on the open beachies or when I’ve had to paddle out through a deeper gutter the thought [of sharks] definitely has crossed my mind.
What strategies are you aware of to help you avoid an encounter with a shark?
Avoiding bait balls is a good strategy. Staying closer to the beach and riding longboards make me feel like I’m on the safe side and it has seemed to work so far.
I’ve also seen people paint eyes and stripes on the bottom of their boards or on their wetsuits.
There are some signs that a shark may be present in the water and in close proximity. Do you know any of these signs?
Other than the obvious signs that there’s a bait ball and the possibility of a shark, I don’t know.
The sharks I’ve seen in the surf for a brief moment have been rare encounters with no warning signs. I’ve been told the ones you see are the ones you don’t have to worry too much about.
Speaking to Billy made us realise that there was more that we could learn. We turned to our resident shark expert here at Panamuna, shark conservationist Madison Stewart, to give us a lesson in surfing and swimming with sharks.
Why do you think there has been an increase in shark encounters on the East Coast of Australia this Winter?
Winter shark attacks are not a new thing, it's a reoccurring thing due to the annual migration of whales up the eastern coast of Australia. With them come the Great Whites looking for weak or sick or injured prey. Great Whites also like colder water, so where the cold-water flows, the Great White goes. We have seen that temperate changes bring certain sharks, like Tiger Sharks for example, who like warm water, into greater conflict with humans in swimming areas. Sharks have been known to have temperate preference down to the degree.
What impact has that had on people’s perception of sharks?
I think one of the biggest effects of the migration and in the presence of food, and therefore the congregation of sharks, is that people think their numbers have "boomed". Within the animal kingdom, sharks are famously slow reproducers. Female Great White Sharks, for instance, typically produce a couple of offspring every other year, and only start reproducing once they reach 17 years of age. As a result, sharks are biologically incapable of “baby booms” and indeed are very sensitive to even low levels of fishing. We may be seeing more sharks in some specific areas due to changes in ocean conditions, but not more sharks, and not a boom in populations.
What are your thoughts on shark nets and drum lines?
Baited drum lines and shark nets are vain attempts to protect swimmers and surfers. The effectiveness of these archaic methods has been scientifically disproven. They not only pose a threat to sharks, a species under great threat, but also to a multitude of other marine life and even, horrifically, the swimmers and surfers they are intended to protect. I have personally seen sharks and turtles and dolphins that have become tangled and died on the drumlines and nets and are then predated on by other larger sharks. This proves that, if anything, they attract sharks to the beach and aren't effective in protecting people. A lot of people don't know that there have been several attacks at netted beaches and a fatality at a beach with drumlines, so the idea they protect people is not a reality.
Should we be doing anything differently to avoid these encounters?
The one thing we need to accept when we go into the ocean, is that dangerous animals hunt off our coastline and that the government won't protect us. We need to take that into our own hands. So, one of the best things you can do, is prepare for the worst. Carry trauma kits and educate yourself on the best and worst times to be in the water to minimise the risk. You can learn some of these things in the surfing guide I have written, https://www.surfingguidetosharks.com
Do you believe there is a solution to protect both sharks and surfers? If so, what is it and why will it work?
I think that we drive everywhere, and accept that we will never be safe, and our solution is a seatbelt. So, when it comes to surfing and being in the ocean, we will never be fully safe, but we can invest in strategies, knowledge and equipment to improve our chances.
The reality of the environment here in Australia, and anywhere around the world, is a reality we have forgotten. It is not ours, and it is dangerous, and it means we may have to abandon a perfect break every now and then to avoid becoming a victim to a shark attack.
And with that I feel we have answered our question – are there more sharks in the water and have populations increased significantly? It appears the answer is no. With record numbers of migratory whales this season it is more likely that this has lured more sharks closer to the shore and into a space which we are sharing with them. Make sure you check out Madison’s Surfing Guide to be informed of all you can do to avoid an encounter with one of her beloved sharks.
- Australian Shark Attack File, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, https://taronga.org.au/news/2018-08-30/shark-know-how-shark-attack-file, accessed 15/8/2020
- Royal Life Saving Society - Australia (2019) Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2019, Sydney Australia. https://www.royallifesaving.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/25833/rlssa-ndr-2019-digital.pdf