Sharks in Australia

Doing what I do for a living, I spend my waking hours weighing up the potential of misadventure against the likelihood, the steps you need to take to minimize danger against the worst possible outcome. The risk of shark attack in Australia is tiny, but the potential effects are catastrophic, and so I cannot in good faith just tell my Aussie supporters to carry on swimming anytime, anywhere.

Over the autumn I toured the UK with a talk that had a simple message; even the scariest wild animals have far more to fear from us than we do from them. My motive was to get the audience to love animals, hoping they might want to protect and save them. I talked about how worldwide you are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than a shark, 100 times more likely by a bolt of lightning, and at more danger from a tumbling vending machine. I showed footage of me and the crew swimming alongside a range of species from bull and tiger sharks to Great whites to prove they don't deliberately target humans as prey... bolstered with the horrifying fact that unregulated fishing and shark fin soup is taking 100million sharks from the world's oceans every year. Many species are history unless people learn to love them. With the help of shark charity Bite Back who joined me, there were many converts to a cause that really needs advocates.

I'm now on a similar tour in Australia, and all of a sudden we need a few caveats. There is talk and fear about increasing shark attacks, a pilot cull in Western Australia, and widespread rumbles about what can be done... So, can I still sell my simple message in a place that has every species of potentially dangerous shark, and where people do occasionally get attacked?

If you're looking for facts, you need to head to objective sources, and preferably to peer-reviewed science. These are the facts: Last year there were 19 attacks. An attack is any unprovoked aggressive encounter, even if that only relates in a graze, although some of these were more serious. That figure is more than in 2014 (11) and 2013 (10). These statistics need to be analysed as trends over time, particularly when the incidences are so few.

The Australian institute of marine science says:

'The rise in Australian shark attacks, from an average of 6.5 incidents per year in 1990-2000, to 15 incidents per year over the past decade, coincides with an increasing human population, more people visiting beaches, a rise in the popularity of water-based fitness and recreational activities and people accessing previously isolated coastal areas. The majority of incidents were in the warmer months November to April.'

There is no evidence of increasing shark numbers that would influence the rise of attacks in Australian waters. The risk of a fatality from shark attack in Australia remains low, with an average of 1.1 fatalities per year over the past 20 years. There had been a decrease in the average annual fatality rate, which had fallen from a peak of 3.4 per year in the 1930s, to an average of 1.1 per year for the past two decades.'

The two fatalities here last year were both big news, and the nation was gripped by footage of Aussie legend Mick Fanning nearly getting bitten by a shark during a surfing competition. That footage is etched in the collective consciousness; even though it happened in South Africa, and he escaped unscathed (though he was quite spectacularly lucky). Reports of sightings and near misses have gone through the roof, but the cautious sceptic would suggest anecdotal reports could easily be linked to heightened awareness in the media. With 23million people living in Australia now there are any number of things more likely to kill people; perhaps three times more are killed by honeybees, ten times more through horse-riding accidents, and a ten-year average shows 292 people drown annually.

The risks of shark attack are undeniably very small. But - and it's a massive but - they are not zero.

My life is one big risk assessment. Doing what I do for a living, I spend my waking hours weighing up the potential of misadventure against the likelihood, the steps you need to take to minimize danger against the worst possible outcome. The risk of shark attack in Australia is tiny, but the potential effects are catastrophic, and so I cannot in good faith just tell my Aussie supporters to carry on swimming anytime, anywhere.

So what can be done to reduce the risk? Well, the AIMS website has lots of info on the places with the highest incidence of shark encounter, and the months when they are most likely. A little knowledge about the behavior patterns of sharks also helps. A few years back I spent a week diving with dozens of tiger and bull sharks, and never felt any sense of peril. We then did a dive at dusk... and scampered out of the water within minutes; the sharks that had been calm in the daytime had transformed into twitchy and pugnacious predators.

We've spent many weeks filming great white sharks launching breach attacks on fur seals, and it's clear they begin this kind of hunting just before dawn, and continue targeting the seals until the sun's properly up. They'll persist a little longer if visibility is low. I personally would avoid swimming too far from shore at dusk or dawn, and staying clear of seal colonies and murky waters. It's also wise to avoid being in the water around estuaries, piers and harbours, especially where fisherman are cleaning their catch. Spearfishing and other kinds of diving where you're collecting seafood are risky.

I know it sounds harsh to suggest people should steer clear of the sea under those conditions, but this is Australia; a nation that has learned to live alongside the world's largest crocodile and most venomous creature the box jellyfish, not to mention its roll call of the world's most toxic snakes and spiders. These animals cause only a handful of fatalities, because people have learned the rules to living alongside them in harmony.

People are vigilant near rivers in the Northern territories, don't swim in box jelly season, don't touch any snake unless they're 1000% sure what it is. Despite the array of venomous spiders, due to understanding and antivenins no one's been killed by a spider in 35years. Risk management and mitigation is a way of life here, and it works better than anywhere else on earth.

And what else can be done to mitigate shark human conflict? Scientists point out that education and awareness are more effective than a cull. Great whites are not territorial, but pelagic fish that are always on the move. Jaws was a pure fiction; you don't get Great whites that develop a taste for human flesh and hang around in one place munching them.

A cull will just kill hundreds of sharks that would never harm a human, and are just minding their own business on their way to somewhere else. Drum lines are utterly indiscriminate and kill a huge range of non-target species from turtles to dolphins. And let's not forget, Great whites are vulnerable and protected, so no one should be able to just kill them for the sake of it. There should be bucket-loads of solid science proving a cull will work, before a government is allowed to just wade in and start killing them.

Aussies themselves are divided. Looking at comments online, responses range from: 'If you are in the ocean then accept that there are risks being there, just like there are risks of being run over if you cross a busy street. If you aren't prepared to accept the risks then pick up your surfboard and stay home.' And at the other extreme; 'Cull them. Humans are at the apex, and we should deal with predator sharks accordingly. If the sharks could sneak up on land and eat us they would. We are superior in an evolutionary sense and nature says we should use it.'

Eradicating sharks completely would solve the problem, and globally we are well on the way to that scenario. But should we as a sentient species allow that to happen? Would we eradicate tigers or elephants to prevent the occasional human fatalities? Should we remove yet another apex predator without understanding what the knock on effects would be? I can understand Australians telling me to rack off (!) and mind my own business. I don't live here, I don't have kids who surf in these seas, and when this tour is over I'll return to the UK where the most dangerous animal is a grumpy Friesian, and it's front page news if a shark on the other side of the Atlantic starts swimming vaguely in our direction.

I totally get why people are scared, and why there are calls to make the seas safer. But perhaps the thing I've always loved most about the Aussies is the frontier mentality, and the evident pride in the critters they share their wild land with. Every day on tour I'm meeting thousands who love the toxic and the toothy, from the platypus to the stonefish, the irukandji to the blue ringed octopus. Redbacks, funnelwebs and taipans are icons, people have respect for them, an integral part of their rough, tough, rugged heritage. There are plenty who relish the outback and the ocean, their wild places and their wildlife. They learn the rules to staying safe, and don't succumb to irrational fear. It's a part of what makes this place unique and special, something everyone here should be proud of.


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