More Questions Than Answers From Recent Australia Shark Bite
It was just another Tuesday in Greenmount Beach when longboard rider and real estate agent Nick Slater, 46, decided to go for an afternoon surf. Unfortunately, it would be his last.
Jade Parker, a witness to the aftermath, told reporters he saw Slater and his surfboard ‘floating.’ “I ran down to the beach, dropped my board [and] sort of trudged through the line-up to get to him,” he said. “There was probably about three other people in the water trying to pull him in by then.” No blood was evident in the water as Parker and a group of people dragged Slater and his board back to shore as lifeguards rushed towards them. It was too late.
According to ISAF, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias; pictured), tiger shark (Galeocerdo … [+] cuvier) and bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) are the “Big Three” in the shark attack world because they are large species that are capable of inflicting serious injuries to a victim, are commonly found in areas where humans enter the water, and have teeth designed to shear rather than hold.
According to the Global International Shark Attack File (ISAF), this is the first fatal shark bite at a Gold Coast beach since 1958 at Surfers Paradise. This is the third fatal incident in Queensland waters this year, along with Zachary Robba at North West Island in April and Matthew Tratt at Fraser Island in July. According to the ISAF, the state of Queensland has 195 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks from the 1700’s to 2019 with Australia as a whole having 11 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks in 2019 (lower than the most recent five-year annual average of 16 incidents for the region).
Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate announced on Wednesday that all beaches from Burleigh to the border were closed “until further announcement” in response to Tuesday’s tragedy. As he spoke, a sweep was being done by numerous officials (e.g. the Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter, council lifeguards, Surf Life Saving Queensland lifesavers) to see if they could track down the shark responsible for this latest loss of life… or at least confirm that it was no longer in the area. “I think once we know that the shark is not in the vicinity or we have tracked it, then the beaches will be reopened. You’ve just got to know before you make your next move,” he said, while also admitting that sonic shark deterrent equipment, which use electrical fields to repel the creatures, is now being considered by Gold Coast City Council.
The total number of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide is extremely low, given the number of people going to the beach (in fact, numbers have dropped this year due to COVID-19). And while fatality rates have declined for decades thanks to advances in beach safety, medical treatment, and public awareness, people still want answers as to why shark attacks happen and how can they be prevented. One of the biggest questions on people’s lips regarding Slater’s bite: are the shark nets and hook lines installed off Greenmount Beach partly responsible for this incident?
According to ISAF: surfers and those participating in board sports accounted for most shark bite … [+] incidents (53% of the total cases). This group spends a large amount of time in the surf zone, an area commonly frequented by sharks, and may unintentionally attract sharks by splashing, paddling, and “wiping out.”
“There are concerns that Shark Control Program equipment (SCP; drumlines and nets) can serve to attract sharks to an area where they may not have otherwise ventured,” said Dr. Leonardo Guida, Australian Marine Conservation Society shark biologist. “There are documented cases in the Gold Coast shark nets of smaller sharks and rays caught in these nets having large chunks taken out of them by much bigger sharks.”
But not all are convinced the SCP is to fully blame. “I don’t think the equipment would have caused or negated an incident like this,” noted Dr. Blake Chapman, shark scientist and author of Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear. “You can’t prove anything [definitively] right or wrong in these situations. We have so much to learn and understand [about sharks] still – it’s a challenging situation magnified in complexity by changing environmental conditions and human behavior.” Chapman explains how numerous factors can play into why a shark bite happens (e.g. time of day, water visibility, type of fish around, etc.) and warming conditions due to climate change are changing the little we do know about shark behavior. According to Chapman, variations to migratory patterns, food availability and altered brain development, are all predicted to occur… leaving scientists even more in the dark when it comes to understanding what processes are at play when a shark bite happens.
“The environment these sharks are in is changing, and that means how sharks interact with humans is probably going to change. We need to start looking out for new trends and behaviors from the sharks [due to warmer waters],” stated Chapman.
As for the shark nets and hook lines at Greenmount Beach, Mayor Tate said he was not aware of any issues or changes. “I spoke to [Fisheries Minister] Mark Furner this morning already and we’re coming together to work out what is the best solution,” the Gold Coast Mayor commented. “He said there would be a full investigation and give us a week and we should be able to sort out a few more details.” The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has warned that current shark control measures in place along Gold Coast beaches do not prevent sharks from “entering” particular areas. Currently, Fisheries Queensland is testing acoustic pinger technology, which aims to reduce the number of interactions and entanglements of dolphins with drumlines.
The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) investigated 140 alleged shark-human interactions … [+] worldwide in 2019. ISAF confirmed 64 unprovoked shark attacks on humans and 41 confirmed provoked attacks.
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So where do we go from here?
“With regard to this tragic event, what I do know is that there exist non-lethal solutions – like drones and shark tagging/tracking programs – to better inform the public and reduce the risk of shark bites,” remarked Guida. Chapman agrees, citing shark surveillance tactics as one of the better ways to prevent negative interactions between sharks and recreational water users. This is already being done in numerous places around the world, like the Shark Spotters in South Africa whose continuous visual surveillance by trained observers (spotters) to detect sharks has made international waves. Drones already patrol some of Sydney’s beaches, hailed by some as a “more effective and ecological way of keeping surfers and swimmers safe than shark nets, drumlines and helicopter patrols.”
The visual surveillance programs also help keep the sharks safe. We often forget the animal we consider a “mindless, man-eating monster” is in great peril- most of the world’s shark populations are in decline due to overfishing and habitat loss. On average, there are only four fatalities worldwide each year… and fisheries remove about 100 million sharks and rays in that same time frame. If this fatal bite has taught us anything, it’s the importance of global efforts to improve ocean rescue, medical care, and shark education.