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Shark attack hot spots identified on West Australian coast
Experts advise on how to reduce the risk after a surge in fatalities
For the millions of Australians and tourists who head to the country’s beaches every year, there’s nothing more terrifying than the possibility of a shark attack.
And while experts point out that 87 people drown off Australian beaches every year, a rise in shark attacks has created a wave of fear.
Five people have died from shark attacks in Australia this year. More people have been attacked. Such incidents are on the rise.
It started at the holiday resort of Coffin Bay in South Australia, where abalone diver Peter Clarkson perished after being attacked by two great white sharks on February 17. Then Queensland’s Fantome Island recorded a fatality in August.
But the recent trio of fatal attacks off the Western Australian coast has created a feeling of panic.
The attacks have now focused attention on how to reduce the risk of further deaths.
More than 100 species of sharks have been identified in Australian waters -- but the most dangerous are the great white, tiger shark and bull shark, according to Dr. Rory McAuley, senior research scientist at Western Australia’s Department of Fisheries.
“That being said, most sharks are capable of biting humans under certain circumstances,” he says. “There’s no way to completely avoid the risk of being the victim of a shark attack when you enter sharks’ environment.”
Bunker Bay, Western Australia
Kyle Burden was body-boarding in early September at Bunker Bay, near the Margaret River wine region, when he was attacked and killed by a shark.
Surfers responded to the 21-year-old’s death by calling for the government to protect them by introducing baited drum lines, a device made up of a floating drum and a baited hook to catch sharks when they come close to the beach.
James Cook University’s Dr. Colin Simpfendorfer says drum lines have been used with some success to prevent shark attacks in Queensland and New South Wales.
“While these come at an environmental cost, they do appear to provide reduced chances of encountering a shark,” he says.
Cottesloe Beach, Western Australia
Then came the Cottesloe Beach attack in mid October. Bryn Martin -- a healthy 64-year-old -- disappeared while swimming at Perth’s famous beach.
His torn swimming costume was later found by divers, leading authorities to announce that they believed he had been killed by a shark.
Tourism operators across Western Australia, especially diving companies, warned that publicity surrounding this attack and others was beginning to hit them hard. Prospective visitors from around the world were getting in touch to check that they would actually be able to swim at the state’s golden beaches.
And more was about to come.
Rottnest Island, Western Australia
Less than a fortnight later, American George Wainwright was scuba diving with friends off Rottnest Island, a popular tourist spot near Fremantle, when he was attacked and killed on October 22.
The 32-year-old’s death and other recent attacks led the state’s Premier Colin Barnett to order fisheries officials to hunt down the shark and kill it, but it was never found.
Is culling the answer?
That decision led several experts to speak out against the culling of sharks.
“The recent deaths attributed to the great white shark attacks are most distressing and a terrible loss for the families of the victims,” says Professor Shaun Collin from the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute.
But he says that “the culling of any species of sharks is not the solution”.
“Not only will this be indiscriminate killing of a protected Australian species," Colin says. "But there is no way of being sure the sharks caught will be those responsible for the attacks”.
Reducing the risk
Risk avoidance involves reducing time spent around sharks’ prey –- other animal and fish products.
Dr. Simpfendorfer suggests beachgoers “avoid swimming when sharks are more commonly feeding,” such as at dawn or dusk.
He says the danger posed by sharks is still being overstated.
“I've worked with sharks for more than 20 years and I think I can say that I understand them pretty well,” he says.
“When you compare the chance of being bitten by a shark with all of the other risks that we face in living our lives, sharks are near the bottom of the list of things I would worry about.”