Australia ranks high in global charts of shark attacks and is currently running an aggressive culling drive against the marine predator, but a new survey says many Australians aren't really that worried about them.
The survey of 583 visitors to the Sydney aquarium found 77 percent of the respondents were "not at all frightened" or only "moderately frightened" by sharks. Some 87 percent said they shouldn't be killed despite the threat they pose.
A sizeable 69 percent see public education as the best method for preventing shark bites. Some 18 percent say the sharks should simply be left alone.
"The assumption is that the public is afraid that when shark bites happen that they react emotionally and that they are looking for an immediate response," University of Sydney shark expert Christopher Neff told Reuters.
"My data and what the public has said refutes that," he said of the survey, which asked visitors how the government should respond to shark attacks.
There have been 892 shark attacks in Australia since records began in 1791, 217 of which have been fatal. Ten attacks and two deaths were reported last year, according to the University of Florida's annual International Shark Attack File.
The largest shark culling drive in the world is currently under way in Western Australia, where attacks are most common.
Forty-five sharks have been killed there so far this year after being caught on baited drum lines the state government wants to extend for three years.
Only four percent of respondents to Neff's survey supported shark hunts while nine percent wanted more shark nets.
"We've gone from Hollywood myths to reality and the public has made that transition. The public have switched from seeing sharks as they used to see them from Hollywood and seeing them in real life and being able to distinguish the two," Neff said.
The researcher said that visiting the aquarium's glass tunnel known as "Shark Valley" could help reduce people's fear of sharks. Participants answered the survey after strolling through the tunnel, where they could watch sharks close up.
"This survey shows that education makes a huge difference to the way the public looks at sharks and their behaviour, so we know education works," said Neff, whose survey was financed by the Sea Life Conservation Fund.
Many beaches along Australia's east coast, in New South Wales, are fitted with shark nets off shore to prevent sharks from entering the areas where people swim.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)