September 17, 2005
Shark attacks spark “kill or be killed” debate
By Michael Perry
SYDNEY (Reuters) - In a life-and-death struggle, Australian
surfer Jake Heron punched the great white shark as it bit his
arm and thigh, turning the ocean into a bloody cauldron.
Very few people survive an attack by a great white, which
can grow to 20 feet, weigh 2.5 tonnes, and with enough power in
its jaws to lift a car.
Two weeks earlier, marine biologist Jarrod Stehbens, 23,
also fought a great white as it pulled him underwater as he
tried to climb into a boat. Sadly, Stehbens lost his fight for
These two attacks in the past few weeks, both in waters off
South Australia state, have sparked an emotional debate in
Australia over whether the great white, the ocean's fiercest
predator, should be culled.
Displaying his savaged surfboard, bitten in half by the
shark, Heron is adamant that Australia should end its
protection of the great white and start culling.
"They're top of the food chain and nothing affects it,"
Heron told reporters after his attack.
"It's time they started controlling the numbers. Controlled
culling -- they kill our national emblem, the kangaroo, they
kill elephants in Africa," he said.
"The numbers have gone up and there's too many of them," he
said, adding that sharks were swimming closer to shore
threatening children swimming off beaches.
But the parents of Stehbens, who fought in vain to free his
leg from the shark's jaws after being attacked while diving for
cuttlefish, reject calls to kill the shark.
"He was a marine biologist, he wouldn't want anything
killed," said his father, David Stehbens. "Jarrod was doing
exactly what he wanted to do. He loved the sea..."
Australia has a global reputation for sharks, with its cold
southern waters the ideal breeding ground for great white
pointers. But the chances of an attack are slim, in fact,
swimmers are more likely to drown than be bitten by a shark.
By September 2005, there had been 652 shark attacks, 191 of
them fatal, in Australian waters in the past 200 years,
according to the Australian Shark Attack File at Sydney's
In the past 50 years, 60 people have died after being
attacked by a shark, 1.2 fatal attacks a year. This compares
with two to three deaths each year from bee stings and hundreds
of drownings by beach swimmers and fishermen.
"Shark attacks are very prominent in the media when they
occur, but they are rare events," said Barry Bruce, a
government marine scientist who has studied great whites since
Great whites are "hot-spot hunters," which target oceanic
biological activity, like big schools of fish, seal colonies
and dead whales. The sharks do not intentionally hunt humans.
"We are not seeing a trend of increasing shark attacks
against a trend of increasing population," said John West, who
runs The Australian Shark Attack File.
The odds of a shark attack are 15-20 million to one, he
"Unfortunately, they test to see if you are edible, but
they can only use their teeth or nose and in doing so they do a
lot of damage to soft, squishy humans," said West.
Humans are not sharks' ideal prey because we are bony and
have less flesh than seals or dolphins but unfortunately one
exploratory bite by a great white, which has poor eyesight, is
enough to kill most humans.
According to reports of attacks, very few great whites
return for another bite.
Australia regards the great white as an endangered species
and has protected it for the past 10 years. Great whites are
also protected by South Africa, Namibia, the Maldives and by
the U.S. states of Florida and California.
Scientists say there is no evidence that shark numbers have
risen dramatically as a result of protection, as counting is
impossible, and sharks have slow reproductive cycles.
Female great whites do not start reproducing until they
grow to about five meters (16 feet), which takes about 15 to 20
years, and then only produce five to 10 pups every three years.
"Their reproductive potential is quite low and because of
that the time it takes to increase their numbers significantly
is a long time, likely to be much more than 10 years," said
Scientists say culling would have little impact on attacks
and would unbalance the food chain by removing an apex
Those calling for culling also claim that shark tourism and
tuna farming has attracted sharks closer to shore and swimmers.
Again, scientists discount such an argument, saying shark
tourism occurs well offshore. It involves operators dumping
bloody berley or fish bait into the ocean to attract sharks and
then lower tourists in cages into the water.
And there are also only a handful of operators in the ocean
off the state of South Australia.
"Sometimes they put berley in water and find nothing
because sharks are traveling in and out of these areas," Bruce
Scientists say that tuna farms, which are found only off
southern Australia, are not a big attraction for sharks. The
fish are in big enclosures and, unlike seals or swimmers, do
not offer sharks an opportunistic feed.
Culling sharks would be very difficult and costly,
scientists say, particularly as great whites travel thousands
of kilometers (miles) each year along "hunting highways."
Great whites patrol an area that extends from Australia's
cold southern waters to its tropical northern waters on both
its east and west coasts. Usually they move north during autumn
and winter and south in spring and summer.
Sharks tagged by the Australian government's Commonwealth
Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) have
been recaptured up to 1,400 km (870 miles) from the point of
Scientists say that 24 to 48 hours after an attack the
chances are a great white would be hundreds of kilometers away.
Sharks also have erratic movement patterns, with electronic
transmitters showing some swimming near the seabed and close to
shore by day and near the surface and offshore at night.
Scientists believe that, if there is any increasing risk of
shark attack in Australia, it will be caused by people, not
sharks, as more leisure time means more people are entering the
"The more people in the water, and the more diverse their
activities, the more chances somebody will be in the path of a
hunting shark," said Bruce.