Fear, not logic, drives the shark debate

I OBSERVED many people enjoying a swim and splash in Lake Macquarie on a beautiful New Year’s Day, ranging from family groups with children to the more serious distance swimmers seeking some exercise.

I reflected on the current debate as I floated on the water, about sharks, both in Lake Macquarie and the rest of the country, and for the call to undertake some culling of great white sharks, particularly in Western Australia.

The debate appears to be fuelled more by some sort of primeval fear, deep in some people’s psyche rather than true logic and actual risk. 

The problem originates in our lack of scientific knowledge about sharks. Unfortunately the approach taken by humans in the past, if there was something in nature they did not understand or saw as a risk, was  the simplistic solution of killing, destroying or barricading.  Our approach to working with nature must be based on research and understanding  behaviour.

 As an example of past mistakes in trying to control and dominate nature we only need to look at wetlands, which our forefathers believed to be smelly swamps needing to be filled in to make useful land. Only with later research was it found how necessary they were to treat stormwater run-off (among other functions) in order to maintain estuary water quality.  It was a very expensive mistake and considerable funds have been spent around the world constructing new wetlands to treat stormwater run-off.

Late last year, I was fortunate to chair a very interesting community forum at Terrigal to hear from two leading researchers who had received funding to investigate juvenile great white sharks in our region.

The first was Dr Barry Bruce, from the CSIRO, who has a reputation as one of Australia’s leading shark experts. He was followed by Professor Bill Gladstone, from the University of Technology, Sydney.

  These two researchers and their respective teams had collaborated using different techniques to get more accurate information on the great whites.

This work was mentioned briefly in the Herald on Saturday, January 4.   However, I encourage people to read this report in detail. It can be found on the Hunter-Central Rivers Catchment Management Authority website under ‘‘media and publications’’. 

The aspect that intrigued me the most was the very large number of great whites tracked along our region’s section of coast, particularly in the nursery area and close to the wave zone.  In the surf area most dense with sharks, there has never been an attack. 

During question time at the forum, the message came back clearly from these learned researchers that we just don’t know the answers to the numerous questions raised by the  audience and it was surprising how, in our modern world, so little is known about sharks. 

One question that perplexed many was why sharks do not attack more often, given both the large number in the water combined with their acute sensory systems. 

They obviously know humans are present in the water yet decide not to attack, but on other limited occasions will attack.  The need for more research and understanding is key to managing the interaction between sharks and humans.

In Lake Macquarie, the last reported shark attack was in Swan Bay (Marks Point) on October 14, 1946, when a male suffered a lacerated left leg.  

To the people I saw enjoying themselves in the lake the other day, it must be reassuring to know that statistically you were safer there than driving on the road or doing so many other routine activities. 

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