Features Australia

Shark bait

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

‘That moment when they lock eyes and they acknowledge you, it’s hard to put it into words,’ a clearly smitten American woman called Ocean Ramsey told Australia’s 60 Minutes this month.

When who locks eyes? Two lovers? A parent and child? A puppy and its new owner through the bars of a rescue-kennel cage?

No. A one-tonne shark and a 60kg human. Ramsey, a marine biologist, was describing the feeling she gets while swimming unprotected alongside large sharks off Hawaii, which she does often. Apparently eyeballing the type of beast that could bite you in two is a spiritual moment, not a scary one.

The 60 Minutes reporter didn’t ask Ramsey to explain how she knew the shark had ‘acknowledged’ her. Why would you? It’s hardly the daffiest thing being said about sharks these days.

So if it’s okay for Ramsey to read a shark’s mind, let’s read hers. Ramsey thinks the reason the shark doesn’t chomp her up and spit out her snorkel and goggles is that it is reciprocating her inter-species goodwill.

Having reached this conclusion, even grander ideas then spring to mind. She has stared the angel of death in the face and pacified it with her love! She is the chosen one! She must preach the virtues of this cosmic harmony to her rapacious fellow humans! She could make a career out of this!

She’s no Robinson Crusoe there. Thousands of people are, like Ramsey, eking out a lucrative profession from this caper, many of them at our expense. The only thing that has grown faster than the human death toll since great white sharks were awarded protected status in all Australian waters in 1998 is the industry of researchers drawn to the topic like flies to a sidewalk sausage.

Their business model is simple: claim that these noble creatures and most of the marine environment will become extinct if tens of millions of dollars are not spent on research into their mysterious ways; withhold any information that might suggest the species is not in danger while emphasising what little research suggests they are; demand more taxpayers’ money; repeat.

The only potential hiccup in this grand plan is the occasional attack on a human, the possibility of which is now also an uncomfortable, albeit remote, thought to the millions of Australians planning to spend some of the forthcoming summer at the beach with their kids.

This horrifying consequence never bothered the researchers all that much. The Great White Recovery Plan, published by the federal government’s Environment Department in 2002, is a 42-page document that devotes three words — count ’em! — to the inevitably increasing risks to human lives and limbs.

The report’s ‘community education strategy’ section says ‘safe swimming guidelines’ should be established. That’s it.

In the 17 years since, there have been 32 known deaths and at least three more that were likely caused by what Ocean Ramsey might describe as an ‘over-enthusiastic acknowledgment’ from her jawsome friends. Yet those ‘safe swimming guidelines’ have still not been fully explained.

For example, some government websites advise against swimming at dawn or dusk, when sharks are supposedly more inclined to attack. This would give people who enter the water during broad daylight a feeling of relative safety.

But of the 26 most recent Australian fatalities for which I can find details, twelve occurred between 10am and 3pm. Only two happened at either dawn or dusk.

It took me about an hour on the internet to find that information debunking a widespread belief. Researchers who have spent decades and millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money have seldom produced anything as useful to ocean users, even though around the world an academic paper on great whites alone is published about once a month.

Their most recent finding is that great whites that feasted together at a particular seal colony in South Australia over a four and a half year period had a noticeable tendency to subsequently return simultaneously. ‘This study provides new insights into the aggregatory behaviour of white sharks at a seal colony and shows for the first time that white shark co-occurrence can be non-random,’ the research paper, published this month, boasts.

This finding contradicts two of the most significant statements of the past decade regarding great whites. The first, by the West Australian Fisheries Department in 2016 after conducting one of the biggest tagging-and-tracking projects in history, was that great whites’ movements in Western Australia and South Australia were ‘highly variable’ and ‘not consistent’. The second is by NSW chief shark researcher Vic Peddemors, who after an entire career in the field said, also in 2016, ‘their movements are like if you drop a bag of marbles — they go everywhere.’

Naturally, after contradicting their peers, the researchers behind the latest report reached another conclusion: ‘Our findings show that great white sharks don’t gather just by chance, but more research is needed to find out why.’ Of course it is.

Back of the queue, buddy. The amount of taxpayers’ money being thrown at this issue might be growing, but competition for it is growing faster. Recently $90,000 was given to Flinders University to find ways to make wetsuits more resistant to shark bites, another researcher stuck LED lights to surfboards in the hope that sharks would think they are not food, and a group of social scientists travelled from Sydney to northern NSW to ask locals how their behaviour had changed since a recent spate of attacks.

Notice what these projects all have in common? None addresses the real issue — namely, that the protection of sharks and the scuttling of our shark-fishing industries have led to an explosion in shark numbers, and we need to start trimming them back.

But that sort of common sense is expressed by people who pay taxes, not spend them.

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