Shark hunts a Hollywood response to real horror

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

This year may be remembered as the summer of the shark hunt. Following the third fatal shark attack in Western Australia in the past two months, the state government authorised a shark hunt to address the situation. This is the fifth reported hunt of the year, after shark attacks in Russia, the Seychelles, Reunion Island and Mexico. In four of the five cases, there were also multiple shark attacks and public outcry for action.

The public's concern is reasonable. These are terribly tragic events, where lives have been lost in a small area and over a short period of time. The problem is not that the West Australian public should not be concerned; it is that they are being offered a political solution to a public safety problem.

There is no evidence that shark hunts reduce attacks. Research shows these responses are political, symbolically reducing public perceptions of risk rather than the actual risk. At the core of this reaction are two elements: the pressure on any government to respond after tragic and unexplainable events; and the familiarity of the 'rogue shark' theory.

This theory began with a British Medical Journal article in 1899. The article addressed a series of unexplained shark bites and caught the attention of the shark researcher and Sydney surgeon Sir Victor Coppleson, a good man and public servant. With his heart in the right place, he developed the 'rogue shark' theory in the 1940s and '50s; however, it went awry as he tried to explain why sharks bite. His theory has been discredited by science over the years, but found its way into the film Jaws and into our collective consciousness.

The true answer is that sharks are not in WA or Sydney looking for people, and the only place to find a 'rogue shark' is in Hollywood. Clearly, making this point after three fatal shark attacks is a leap for researchers and governments, but it has been done before.

Following a string of fatal shark attacks in the 1920s, the NSW government commissioned a Shark Menace Committee. It concluded that "sharks do not patrol the beaches on the off-chance of occasionally devouring human prey" and the government said the best way to reduce risk was to educate people about where they went swimming and what times of day.

The messages of 1929 still provide options today. Sharks are following prey, such as whales, dolphins, bait fish and seals, and governments have choices following shark attacks that can educate the public to reduce personal risk based on their behaviour.

Four factors can be reviewed to reduce risk: environmental conditions (stay out of the water after or before storms, at dawn or dusk); ecological conditions (avoid areas with bait fish, dolphins, seals and whales); personal behaviour (be conscious of how far out you are and how long you've been in the water, and avoid shiny jewellery); and lastly shark behaviour (sharks are curious and defensive; we are in the way, not on the menu).

The political problem in WA is that shark hunts reinforce the outdated 'rogue shark' myth. Yet beaches are 'always-active' ecosystems that present real dangers and shark hunts are not the solution.

Christopher Neff is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney conducting the first doctoral study of policy responses following shark-bite incidents in Australia, South Africa and the United States.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the opinion of ScienceAlert.