Shark Attacks on the Rise?

After a series of recent shark attacks in Australia, experts search for answers

Year after year, Western Australia remains at the top of the list for the area with the dealiest shark attacks. Photo: AP

Yesterday, a 48-year-old man was bitten on the arm while surfing near Streaky Bay in South Australia. This comes just over a week after surfer Ben Linden was fatally attacked by a great white near Perth, making it the sixth shark attack in Australia this year. While experts say the number of attacks in Australia has steadily increased in line with population growth, recent attacks have as raised further questions as to whether there is more to the equation.

Alexia Wellbelove, Senior Program Manager at Humane Society International says the number of attacks may be more than coincidence. "Thousands of dead sheep are being thrown overboard as ships depart the ports," she says. "It's likely that the disposal of animal remains will attract large sharks…The Humane Society has written to the WA federal government with a documented list of shark attacks and presence of live export vessels, urging them to investigate possible links and any connection between them."

The Department of Fisheries Supervising Scientist, Dr. Brett Molony, claims that the factors linked to shark interactions are being investigated. "Our attention is focused on identifying times and environmental conditions where shark sightings and human interactions with sharks are likely to occur," he says. "Regulations are also being drafted for a state ban on shark tourist ventures based on the attraction of sharks, including cage-diving."

While Molony recognizes human culpability, he denies that live exports are to blame. "There is no scientific evidence to support any increased risk of attack by White Sharks associated with live export vessels," he says. "A ship's captain is required to dispose of a dead animal as far as practicable from the nearest land. The Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has informed the WA Department of Fisheries this isn't likely to happen until the ship has been at sea for several days and is far out to sea."

Judging by statistics, there are considerably more sharks in Western Australia, but with waves like this littering the coast, surfers continue to take the risk. Photo: Gurney

Mike Burgess, Head of the Department of Fisheries WA Shark Response Unit, says, "Most of the cases cited by the Humane Society International don't appear to support a proposed link between White Shark sightings, attacks, and live sheep transport vessels. White Sharks are typically solitary and rarely aggregate. In addition, the diet of White Sharks consists mainly of fish, other sharks, and marine mammals. While we can't dismiss the possibility that some species of shark may follow these vessels, it's unlikely that the White Sharks would. It's more plausible that oceanic pelagic (surface-dwelling) shark species, such as oceanic white tips and blue sharks, would follow these vessels. However, there are no records of attacks by these species, or sightings of them in coastal WA."

Locals in the Perth community are concerned, but most aren't jumping to conclusions. "They have been exporting live animals for years. The increase of whales and seals in the area, along with the protection of the Great White Sharks are the reason for attacks," says longtime Perth resident Paul Manners, who's lived in Perth for over 40 years and currently resides in Gnaraloo Bay, better known as Shark Bay.

Surf photographer and Perth resident Ian Regnard says, "That is the first I have heard that the problem was due to live animal exports. I thought it was more due to the fact that down south in Australia they do a lot of cage diving, attracting sharks with blood and fish and therefore seeing humans in the water may get the sharks associating food with humans. Along with seal population on the rise and our water getting more depleted from its resources."

While there are still no definitive answers, Tony Capelluti, head of Western Australia's Fisheries Department, says they've allocated some $14 million to get a better understanding of the Great White Sharks and the reasons why fatalities are occurring. "Western Australian water is home to more than 100 species of sharks," he says. "A tagging and tracking program was introduced last year. It shows that the sharks, which have no predators other than humans, whales, and other sharks, will linger off Australia's west coast for months at a time."

With the new programs in place for research on White Sharks, hopefully we will get a better understanding of the species to prevent shark attacks in the future and promote the safety of swimmers and surfers in Australia.—Mike Drentea