Shark hysteria in WA ‘not helpful’

Hysteria over an unprecedented spate of fatal shark attacks in Western Australia over the past year is endangering efforts to learn more about great whites, a conservation group says.

The Conservation Council of WA today calls for calm after two tagged great whites less than 3m long were detected 29 times by a shark monitor off Ocean Reef in Perth’s north yesterday, sparking explosive headlines.

CCWA marine co-ordinator Tim Nicol said it would be “stupid” to kill tagged sharks – a possibility recently flagged by the WA government – because they provided useful information about the species and increased public-safety awareness.

“Killing tagged sharks is the worst thing we could do right now,” Mr Nicol said in a statement.

“We need to learn more about white sharks and these are the sharks giving us information about their movements.

“It is very expensive and difficult to tag white sharks and only a small proportion of the population is currently tagged.”

WA was labelled the world’s deadliest place for shark attacks after five fatalities off its coast in the past year.

The most recent victim was 24-year-old Ben Linden, who was taken by a 5m great white off Wedge Island, 160km north of Perth, in July.

A Department of Fisheries spokesman said the shark-monitoring network had tagged at least 105 great whites since 2009, mainly off Neptune Island in South Australia where there was a known congregation of the species.

Seventy-four great whites were tagged in WA and South Australian waters during the program’s initial year, with 31 tagged since then, illustrating their rarity.

There is no definite figure on the population of great whites in WA and SA waters, but the CCWA said some research had indicated the population could be less than 1000.

Tagging the predator in WA is more difficult because there is no known congregation and taggers must take advantage of opportunities that draw in larger sharks such as a whale carcass or snapper spawning clusters.

Great whites are protected under both state and federal law as an endangered species, prohibiting the animals from being captured and killed unless they pose an imminent threat to human life.

Last month, the WA government allocated $4 million to the Department of Fisheries to set up drum lines, and track and destroy sharks that get too close to swimmers.

The announcement came only weeks after a government-funded study by Queensland’s Bond University found drum lines provided no guarantee of deterring sharks and killed a range of other sea creatures.

Yesterday the WA government announced it had established the Shark Hazard Advisory Research Committee, headed by the state’s chief scientist Lyn Beazley, to allocate $2m for shark deterrent research.

Grants of up to $300,000 over three years will be available to WA-based organisations under the scheme.

SHARC research projects are expected to begin by the end of the year.