Five-fold rise in shark attacks sparks calls for cull of protected great whites
Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 7 October, 2005 : - - Jake Heron was preparing to catch the last wave of the day when the oceans most feared predator struck. Erupting from the water beside him, the great white shark bit deep into his right arm and leg. "Terror is the only word I can think of to describe it," Heron, a 40-year-old lobster fisherman, said. "I was punching and kicking and screaming for help. Its dorsal fin was right in front of my face."
The 12-foot shark was turning for another strike when a lucky wave propelled Heron and the remains of his mangled surfboard on to the shore. He was rushed to hospital and was given more than 60 stitches. Heron's ordeal, early last month, earned him membership of one of the world's most exclusive clubs those who have been attacked by a great white and survived.
But it has also prompted an impassioned debate in Australia over whether the great white shark Carcharodon carcharias should be culled. There have been five shark attacks in Australia since December, two of them fatal significantly more than the national average of one a year.
Surfers and fishermen claim that great white numbers have increased dramatically in the last decade after the species was granted protection from hunting. They also say the sharks are being lured closer to shore by a booming tuna fishing industry which has developed in the last decade and is now worth millions of pounds a year.
Tens of thousands of wild-caught tuna are fattened in offshore cages before being exported to Japan, where they are served in restaurants as premium quality sushi and sashimi. Critics say the raw pilchards tossed into the pens, and the blood and guts which spill into the water when the tuna are slaughtered, are an irresistible attraction for great whites, which can grow up to 20 feet and weigh 2.5 tonnes.
Nowhere is the controversy more acute than in Port Lincoln, the centre of the tuna industry, on the southern tip of South Australia's Eyre Peninsula.
Overlooking the deep blue waters of Boston Bay, Port Lincoln is the Antipodean equivalent of Amity Island, the fictional New England beach resort caught up in shark attack hysteria in the 1975 blockbuster Jaws.
Underwater footage of great whites used in the film was filmed at Dangerous Reef, a few miles up the coast.
Heron was attacked as he surfed a picturesque cove south of the town. In 2000, two surfers were killed within 48 hours at similar surf spots along South Australia's remote coast.
There was another near miss last weekend when surfer Josh Berris, 26, desperately fought for his life after being attacked off Kangaroo Island, southeast of Port Lincoln. He survived by ramming his surfboard into the shark's mouth. "Numbers are up five to seven-fold compared with 10 years ago," Heron, whose bite wounds are slowly healing, said. "The tuna industry is teaching sharks to interact with boats and people."
Anti-shark sentiment is running high in Port Lincoln, where swimming, surfing and boating are a way of life. "To have so many attacks in such a short period of time is unheard of," said Nick Porter, who runs a surf shop on the esplanade. "I would say 90% of surfers would be in favour of a cull."
The tuna industry denies that its offshore farms have increased the number of great whites or led indirectly to attacks. Port Lincoln's tuna barons, who have become millionaires from the prized fish, say the tuna pens act as a magnet for sharks which would be in the area anyway, rather than luring more animals from the open ocean.
"Shark sightings are up because there are so many more fishermen out on the water looking out for them," said Robbie Staunton, a tuna company manager whose office overlooks Port Lincoln's busy marina. The two sides are deadlocked because the great white's range is so vast that scientists have no idea whether their population has risen or dropped in the past decade.
"From our limited observations, there's no general trend either up or down," said Barry Bruce, a government scientist who is one of the country's foremost shark authorities.
Many Australians suspect the reason for the increase in shark attacks is because people are moving to the coast in search of a better lifestyle and are spending more time in the water. The number of attacks should be kept in perspective, said Peter Davis, Port Lincoln's mayor. "You're more likely to die of a bee sting or a lightning strike than a shark attack."
But such assurances fail to convince many in Port Lincoln, where the fear of great whites has bred something close to a siege mentality. "There are way too many of them," said Renee Smith, 18, a waitress at a café overlooking the inviting turquoise shallows of Boston Bay. "There'll be another fatal attack this [Australian] summer. I'd put money on it."
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