The sharks of Australian suburbia
The prime waterfront real estate on Australia's Gold Coast is not just habitat for humanity – even sharks want a piece of the action.
| On the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
Think of game fishing and what comes to mind? Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," perhaps? Or hooking a big marlin from the deck of a boat off the Bahamas?
Here in Australia's suburbia on the sea, they do it a little differently – from a lounge chair in the backyard; or off an apartment balcony while watching television or playing pool. And because the quarry is one of the world's most aggressive fish – the bull shark – the catch loses none of the rush it has on the high seas.
The bull shark has multiplied so fast in the waters of Gold Coast creeks and canals that amateur anglers have caught 10-foot-long specimens with nothing more sophisticated than a pork chop taken from the barbecue and attached to a hook.
The Gold Coast extends for 30 miles from the border with New South Wales to Brisbane, Queensland's state capital. It consists of high-rise hotels, shopping malls, and theme parks backed by a spaghetti-like tangle of artificial lakes and canals.
Apartment blocks and villas back onto the water in suburbs with names like Paradise Point, Mermaid Waters, and Isle of Capri.
It is Australia's answer to Spain's Costa del Sol or Florida's Miami Beach – it even boasts a suburb called Miami.
The region's subtropical climate, outdoor lifestyle, and upscale marina developments have made it the fastest growing region in Australia, attracting thousands of newcomers a year from overpriced Sydney and inclement Melbourne.
Just as the waterfront development is prime habitat for humans, so it is for the bull shark, which can tolerate salt and fresh water and have even been found living in rivers hundreds of miles inland. Also known as the Zambezi shark, river shark, and estuary whaler, the blunt-snouted, barrel-shaped predator can reach up to 12 feet in length. They are opportunistic hunters, preying on other sharks, stingrays, crabs, squid, turtles, and, occasionally, humans. [Editor's note: The original version had a photo that was removed.]
Though the Gold Coast has been developing since the 1960s, there are concerns that many of the new human arrivals have little idea of the dangers lurking beneath the surface of the inviting water.
"A lot of people are moving up here and many of them are unaware of the fact that we have sharks in the canals," says Paul Burt, a local fishing expert and newspaper columnist. "There are thousands upon thousands of them, and they are potential man-eaters. They're unpredictable – they'll bite your boat, chew your engine. They're a nut case of a shark. People catch them as they're cooking their snags [sausages] and prawns on the barbie. It's very Gold Coast, very Aussie."
It may rank as some of the easiest game fishing in the world, but bull sharks are not to be underestimated. Two people swimming in the Gold Coast's brackish canals were killed by the sharks in 2003 and a young woman was killed off nearby Stradbroke Island last year.
That's bad news in a place where leisure activities revolve around being on or in the water.
But for Saeed Granfar – an architecture student who has been fishing here since childhood – it's not all bad. In the past decade, he says, he's caught at least 100 sharks.
His technique? He baits his line with chopped eel and fixes the rod to a pontoon in his back garden. Then he retreats to his living room to watch DVDs and keep an ear out for the ratcheting sound of the line playing out.
"I have the sliding door to the TV room open and the remote control in my hand," he explains. "And as soon as I hear a sound, I run down to the pontoon. The reel takes off at about 100 k.m.h. – it's a huge adrenaline rush.
"My mum doesn't like it much because I keep breaking vases and things."
"It's definitely lazy man's fishing," says Mr. Granfar, who throws most of his catch back, but does eat some, tenderizing the meat with a special marinade.
With more than 300 miles of waterways snaking along the Gold Coast, installing nets to prevent the sharks entering from the sea is impractical. The channels that connect the canal network with the ocean are in constant use by boat traffic.
Even putting up enough signs to inform people of the perils of swimming or paddling stretches the resources of the local council.
Instead some on the Gold Coast see ways to turn a bad situation into gold.
There is a call, from fishing outfitters, for a "bull shark classic," a regular tournament in which fishermen would be invited from around Australia and abroad.
"We'd have prizes for the biggest bull shark and for the most caught in one day," says Kurt Mitchell, who runs Gold Coast Extreme Shark Fishing Safaris. "There are enough sharks to sustain a contest once a month."
Bull sharks' aggression and strength make them an excellent game fishing species, Mr. Mitchell says. "They home in on the bait and hit it like a ton of bricks. You have to fight them for up to an hour. It's like being hooked up to a freight train. The biggest we've pulled in was 7-1/2-feet long."
Queensland authorities believe the bull shark population is probably increasing because the excavation of new canals is expanding the species' habitat.
Fisheries officials say that while fishermen are free to catch and kill as many bull sharks as they wish – there is no limit and the species is considered common – they are opposed to a cull. The inhabitants of the Gold Coast must simply learn to live with the aggressive predators.
"There have been calls to eradicate the animal but they have as much right to be in the water as we do," explains Jeff Krause, district manager of the Queensland Fisheries Patrol. "A cull would be massively expensive, and, in any case, if you kill some, others will take their place."
Despite occasional fatalities, the number of attacks on humans is still minimal considering the fact that the Gold Coast is inhabited by nearly half a million people, says Mr. Krause.
"People need to be aware that sharks are in the water and not go swimming. We just have to learn to cohabit with them."