Australia rethinks shark defences

Sarah Whiley suffered unimaginable pain when she was killed by a pack of sharks off the eastern Australian coast last weekend. The 21-year-old university student was savaged in shallow water on North Stradbroke Island, east of Brisbane.

Her death has sparked a fresh debate in Australia about shark safety programmes.

Fatal shark attacks are extremely rare, with only 10 recorded deaths in the past five years, but concerned authorities are now looking at ways to make swimmers feel more secure.

Around 50 beaches in and around Sydney are protected by nets or tracts of meshing designed to keep the predators away. Since the scheme began almost 70 years ago, there has been just one fatal shark attack.

The New South Wales Minister for Natural Resources, Ian Macdonald, said that despite this impressive record even more should be done.

“Given the recent… attack in Queensland, as well as shark encounters in other states, there has been a lot of discussion about additional measures that could be employed,” he said.

But there is disagreement as to what those measures should involve.

Environmentalists argue that nets are a hazard to other wildlife and do not always stop sharks. They report that dolphins, turtles and even a baby humpbacked whale have died in the mesh. Instead, campaigners favour the construction of caged enclosures for swimmers.

Aircraft’s role

However, Stephen Leahy, who represents surf lifesavers in Sydney, believed that shark nets are invaluable and must stay.

“The major beaches have good, solid protection,” he said. “Certainly the shark netting programme has been very effective.”

The vigilance of lifeguards is an important part of this defensive shield.

Aircraft have a role to play as well. Aerial shark patrols operate to the south of Sydney but they stopped flying over Australia’s biggest city two years ago because of a lack of money. In South Australia, helicopters are vital eyes in the sky over Adelaide’s beaches.

Baited hooks, known as drumlines, are used off the Queensland coast to catch larger sharks. Nets are employed too. But as the state government admits, these “do not place an impenetrable barrier between bathers and sharks”.

There appears to be little appetite for a large-scale culling of aggressive species, such as Bull sharks, blamed for last weekend’s attack.

Dawn and dusk

Education could also save lives. Craig Bohm, from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said that people should avoid the ocean at certain times of the day.

“At dawn and dusk and in murky waters it is not so wise to swim, particularly far from shore,” he said.

Only a small number of shark species pose a danger to people, and while the risk of attack may be small, the threat remains.

Warm sea temperatures and abundant supplies of fish have brought sharks close to the shore in some areas.

On a summer’s day at Maroubra beach in Sydney, locals and tourists seemed largely unfazed by recent shark sightings off the coast of New South Wales.

“I’m not worried about sharks,” said Nash Lee, an aviation student from Hong Kong. “I think Sydney is safe”.

Welsh visitor Joy Morgan agreed. “You just try and take all the precautions you can but the sea is 22 degrees today,” she said excitedly.

“You can’t not go in!”

Source: BBC News