I live with my wife and two kids in Western Australia and I regularly surf in the area of the recent shark attacks at Gracetown. In recent months this world-renowned surf region has become notorious for its shark activity and all available scientific evidence suggests the problem is only going to get worse if more action is not taken to protect ocean users.
Unlike the previous State Government, who implemented a failed drumline policy based on alleviating public fear in summer months, the current Government now has the opportunity to utilize scientific research and statistical data to take more targeted, innovative action to mitigate shark attacks. Unfortunately, however, it appears the Western Australian government is simply out-of-touch with the views of the surfing community and most ordinary West Aussies.
After two shark attacks led to the cancellation of the Margret River Pro (WA’s only international sporting event), the state’s Tourism Minister sought to downplay the landmark decision, saying it would have “no real impact on tourism.” Surfing legend and West Oz local Ian “Kanga” Cairns accused Mr. Papalia of being in denial if he really believed the cancellation would not hurt WA’s image as a tourist destination. Kanga sighted the drop in tourism in Reunion Island as an example of what could happen here if more is not done to alleviate the “shark problem.”
Premier Mark McGowan has labeled the current shark issue as one of “personal effort” and “personal responsibility.” His government has implemented a rebate system for personal shark deterrents. The obvious issue with this approach is the fact that the only shark deterrent available under the rebate is Shark Shield’s Freedom 7 device which is built specifically for scuba diving and simply doesn’t work on a surfboard. With no scientifically proven shark deterrents available for use by surfers there is very little we can personally do to further mitigate our risks besides avoid cloudy days, surfing at dawn, and schools of salmon.
So why is there such a lack of action from the West Oz government? Well, to understand this we need to look back to the previous government’s controversial drumline policy in 2014. This policy led to protests from conservation and environmental groups and failed to make our beaches safer in any measurable way. Since then it appears the issue of shark bite mitigation has become a political hot-potato that the current government simply won’t touch. But there should be no question that more funding and resources need to be allocated towards “whole-of-beach” shark mitigation in the Southwest.
Locals who have surfed, fished, and lived in the region for decades say the current situation is “unprecedented” and many of them including myself are more than a little spooked. But how bad can it really be? Well, in the fortnight following the two attacks in Gracetown there were 72 shark sightings recorded on the 45km stretch of coast between Dunsborough and Margaret River including two more “minor” shark encounters (incidents of surfers being knocked off their board by a large shark). In terms of shark activity, this is about as bad as it gets anywhere in the world.
A 2014 study conducted by the University of Western Australia and published in the Australasian Medical Journal found that the risk of a fatal shark bite varies significantly throughout WA due to factors like location, water temperature and the presence of marine mammals. For Perth beachgoers bathing within 25 meters of shore during summer (which is outside the whales’ migration period), the risk is no more than 1 in 30 million per swim. In stark contrast, for a surfer or diver more than 50 meters from shore, in cool waters off WA’s southwest, in the springtime when whales are close to shore, the risk may be as high as 1 in 15,000.
To put that increased risk into perspective, the study found that in comparison to recreational cycling, the risk of Great White shark attacks for water activities undertaken in Southwest WA (in winter/spring) is estimated to be over 10 times higher than the risk of serious or fatal recreational cycling injury.
These statistics are important because they clearly show that surfers in the Southwest are at a much higher risk of shark bite than the general population. The old trope that “you’ve got more chance being stung by a bee” or “hit on the head by a falling coconut” simply doesn’t cut it in the face of this statistical data.
With such an elevated risk of a shark attack, what are local surfers to do? For many surfers in this region, surfing plays an integral role in their mental and physical wellbeing as well as their social interconnectedness. The idea of staying out of the water is simply not an option for many. The government should be doing everything in its power to encourage positive recreational activities such as surfing and diving, not discouraging them and making surfers feel like they are on their own with these increased risks.
The fact is that personal shark deterrent devices are still in their infancy as a technology and most remain unproven. Instead of focusing so strongly on one type of technology as a solution we should be looking at whole-of-beach mitigation strategies that can benefit all beachgoers. To this end, the non-lethal SMART drumlines currently being trialed in New South Wales seem to be the most viable, effective, and affordable option.
So far the NSW SMART drumline trial has caught and released 235 target sharks including 216 white pointers. All but one were released alive, and according to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, once tagged, those sharks generally stayed in deeper offshore waters for up to a month.
Unlike traditional drumlines, SMART drumlines are not designed to kill target species and they successfully limit the risk to bycatch. They can also be used as an important research tool to better understand the movements and distribution of sharks.
With results like this, we should be jumping at the chance to trial the SMART drumlines in the southwest region of WA. Instead, our government is dodging the hot-potato and hoping that the previous government’s failed drumline policy remains fresh in the memories of most West Australians.
It really is a sad situation we find ourselves in. Without further action, the impacts on our community safety, our economy, and the region’s reputation as a world-class surfing destination will be irreparable.