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Shark Police Save Two Species

Pause For Jaws

By Caryn CoatneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 1998



SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

Launching out onto rolling seas before dawn to ward off man-eating sharks may not be a dream job.

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But for self-described sea dog Jim Lumb, the work has its reward: He protects swimmers on Sydney's beaches from the jaws of the deep. Now, he also helps protect sharks from humans.

"You see a fin coming out of the water - it's wonderful," says Mr. Lumb. as he moves his 50-foot craft named Sea Rogue along the long nets that keep sharks away from swimming areas.

"They're very sleek and very graceful. I'd hate to see the ocean without them," he says, as the golden light of dawn sweeps across rows of waterfront mansions.

Last December, Australia passed a law protecting two endangered shark species, ending the time-honored task of "shark police" who merely slaughtered the feared creatures. Now they must preserve them - even the great white shark - by releasing them if they become entangled in the beach nets.

Australian officials say that great whites have been decimated off the coast, mainly because of fishing. Australia joined California, Florida, Namibia, and South Africa in protecting sharks.

Lumb has never had to save a great white. In fact, he sees a shark only about once every two days.

The government has put the great white and the less-threatening gray nurse shark on its list of endangered species. It also told Australia's shark catchers that if their nets snag a live great white or gray nurse, they should release it - if they can without being bitten. The government's message echoed rules imposed a year earlier by the state of New South Wales (NSW), of which Sydney is the capital.

This is simply a matter of cutting the net to free the shark, says Dennis Reid, a senior official from the NSW Fisheries Department. He says that since the state began protecting the sharks in 1996, one great white has been released safely in NSW.

But some shark contractors aren't too keen on the new rules. Lumb's son, James, who also works on the Sea Rogue, believes that the prospect of freeing a great white is fraught with danger. "There's just not any way you could do it," he insists. Fortunately for Lumb and other contractors, they are exempt from penalties if a protected shark is killed in a net.

While the Lumbs have yet to save a great white, they do what they can to release smaller, harmless sharks like the Port Jackson, named after Sydney's harbor. "The only thing they'll do to you is gum you to death," says James.

His father, Jim, says shark contractors don't intentionally kill sharks. "We just want to prevent them from coming to the beaches. If I didn't catch a shark at all, I'd be happy," he says.

The contractors move their mesh nets, each 164 yards long, between beaches to try to prevent sharks from establishing territories. The nets are taken away during the winter, when fewer people frequent the beach. Jim estimates he catches about 50 sharks on his beat each season. Most die from drowning as they struggle to break free from the nets.

Famous for its surfing and lifesaving culture, Sydney became the first place in the world to try to make its beaches "shark-proof" following a spate of attacks in the 1920s and 1930s. The mesh nets first appeared around the city's beaches in 1937. Since then, nets have been placed around other beaches.

The Australian government estimates that roughly 500 great whites are killed off the coast each year, and only 10,000 remain in this part of the world. Mr. Reid says they are often caught inadvertently by fishermen. Sharks fetch high prices in Asia, where shark fin soup is a delicacy. Other shark parts are used in health and beauty products.

Between 1990 and 1996, Australia recorded 45 shark attacks, resulting in seven deaths. Yet sympathy for the great white has grown due to concerns that the fish may disappear. Australia's Environment Minister Robert Hill says people now not only want to preserve the "furries and cuddlies," but also species viewed as threatening.