The Queensland Government cites the statistic of only a single fatality at a beach protected under it’s shark management program in the last 54 years, as evidence that meshing and drum-lining are effective in preventing shark attack. But can these shark management methods really be expected to keep our beaches safe?
Both meshing and drum lining are essentially indiscriminate and consequently controversial means of ‘culling’ potentially dangerous sharks: the by-catch, often comprising endangered species (turtles, whales, harmless sharks and rays, etc) is commonly significant. Consequently, the use of these methods of shark management demand a sound scientific basis. And whilst the combination of meshing and drum-lines is generally considered to have reduced the incidence of shark attack, the absence of fatalities in Queensland is likely to be attributable to a combination of improved medical responses and luck.
Given baited drum-lines and mesh panels provide only partial barriers to the movement of sharks, they can at best reduce the number of sharks that come in close proximity to our beaches, and thus simplistically, the odds of an attack. Several shark attacks have occurred on beaches ‘protected’ by meshing and / or drum-lines.
Those of us who note with pleasure the steady increase in the number of migrating hump-back whales, must also recognize that where there are whales (and particularly whales with young calves), there will be large predatory sharks. An increasing humpback whale population is serving to attract an increasing number of large sharks to the coasts of both east and western Australia. Despite Queensland’s shark management program, a fatal shark attack on the Gold or Sunshine Coast is a matter of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’.
Shark attacks and particularly fatal attacks are likely to be minimized where we:
– recognize the risk and act prudently (for example, by avoiding discoloured waters)
– better understand shark ecology, behavior and presence (research, which by comparison to methods of ‘culling’ is relatively inexpensive, will certainly save lives)
– continue to improve the ‘social infrastructure’ (aerial, water- and beach-based surveillance, and associated medical support), associated with popular surfing beaches (again, modest investments that support not-for profit clubs and local and state government services will save lives).
Stay safe and enjoy the beach this summer.