Tragic attacks test Australians' respect for sharks

Animal conservation efforts are well supported despite last week's fatality adding to one of worst years on record.

When a great white shark surged out of the depths off Perth's Cottesloe Beach last week and attacked a group of swimmers, killing one and badly injuring another, this year became one of the worst on record for fatal shark attacks in Australia. Three people have been killed by sharks this year, more than in the five previous years altogether, according to John West, curator of the Australian Shark Attack File.

Some experts explain the increase in attacks as a coincidence. Others argue it's the result of depleted offshore fisheries forcing the predators farther inshore. But there is overwhelming consensus on one point: There has been a marked difference in the public reaction to the attacks this year from those in the past.

In fact, even as Australia deals with the tragedy off one of its most popular beaches, there is a campaign under way to save the 16-foot shark responsible. And that, shark experts hope, is a sign Australians are learning to respect sharks' place in nature even at a time when they might seem more likely to seek revenge.

In the past week, about 60 percent of the calls to the Western Australian fisheries department have been against a plan to track down and kill the attacking shark, says Rory McAuley, a researcher. "People now tend to have a better understanding of the role sharks play in the environment," Mr. McAuley says. "I really don't think this shark - or the two sharks involved in the [September] attacks in South Australia - were doing anything abnormal. This is just part of their natural behavior."

Experts say the apparent change in attitude has come through better education and less hysterical media coverage of attacks. Credit also goes to a public relations campaign waged on behalf of sharks in the past decade. Most recently, the focal point of that has become "Jaws" author Peter Benchley. He is now a passionate campaigner for sharks and says he wouldn't have written the terrifying novel behind the movie if he had known then what he knows now. "Please, in the name of nature, do not mount a mindless assault on an endangered animal for making an innocent, however tragic, mistake," he wrote in a plea published in a British newspaper after last week's attack. "It is important to realize that these are freak occurrences that by no means signal a sudden onslaught by sharks."

Little is known about great whites - even their population worldwide is largely unknown. But Mr. Benchley and others argue that attacks on humans are usually accidental and the kind of habitual man-eater portrayed in "Jaws" doesn't exist. "We certainly know that sharks will visit certain areas," says John Stephens, an Australian marine biologist. But "there is very little evidence of one shark coming back and attacking people."

There is still no doubt that being attacked by a shark is one of the most gruesome fears lingering in the subconscious of anyone who steps into the ocean. It is also, thanks to "Jaws," probably the only phobia that comes with an immediately recognizable soundtrack.

But even in a shark hotspot like Australia, experts say you are two or three times more likely to die of a bee sting Down Under than end up in, er, Jaws' jaws. Worldwide through the 1990s, an average of 54 people were attacked by sharks annually, with an average of seven dying from those attacks. "When you consider the number of people who go into the water per day ... the number of attacks on humans and the fatalities that result from them are very small," says Mr. West.

But conservationists concede the recent attacks have made some of their efforts harder for the public to swallow. "It hasn't helped our fight," says Rebecca Brand, who campaigns against shark nets as a researcher with Humane Society International's Australia office. The nets are deployed during the swimming season off beaches in the eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland. Dolphins, whales, and sea turtles often get tangled in the nets, opponents argue, and many of the sharks caught are actually trying to get back out to sea rather than find a human to attack.

A spokesman for the fisheries department in New South Wales argues for the effectiveness of the nets. "It'd be a very brave person who'd agree to take these things away," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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