07 January 2005

Killing sharks is not the answer

Sydney - Spearfisherman Mark Thompson bled to death after being savaged by a shark near the Australian tourist resort of Cairns in December.

"Mark loved life to the full and was a very adventurous fun-loving man," Caroline Thompson said of her late husband. "The fact is that it could have happened to anyone at any time."

Thompson has not joined in calls for a task force to go out and find and kill the shark that took her husband.

Recent research shows, once again, that taking a life for a life would just be vengeance rather than an act that would make life safer for beachgoers.

Barry Bruce, a shark expert with the government-funded CSIRO research body, asks people to think carefully about why they would want to hunt the killer fish.

"Is it to avenge things? Is it because of closure? Is it to make the world a safer place?" he asked. "I can tell you that from a scientific perspective there's no evidence that we can see that would make a shark more or less likely to bite a person after it has already done so."

Australia is the only country in the world where the great white shark is a protected species. It's an offence to harm them, even if they harm you. But each of Australia states has reserved the right to go after great whites that kill humans.

Bruce has come up with more compelling evidence to head off the eye-for-an-eye brigade.

A tagging and satellite tracking programme shows that great white sharks are demon swimmers and can travel hundreds of kilometres a day. The notion that they hang around the same bay is just not borne out by fact.

One of four great whites captured and fitted with a satellite tag on their dorsal fins swam 6 000 kilometres in a seven-month tour of the east coast. Bruce and his research team are trying to see sense in the shark's perambulations.

"On the east coast we know that sharks go north in autumn and return in spring," Bruce said.

But are there sharks that stick to the east coast and others that spend their whole lives on the south coast, or on the west coast? Do they just mill about?

Another finding by the CSIRO team explodes the myth that great white sharks make a beeline for the beach and hunt for surfboarders, scuba divers and spearfishermen. Not one of the four great whites tracked got closer than five kilometres to the coast.

There were calls for revenge when 29-year-old surfer Brad Smith was attacked and killed by a shark 250 kilometres south of Perth earlier this year.

Stephen, Brad's brother, spoke out against a hunt-to-kill mission proposed by the West Australian state government. "I don't believe the shark should be killed just for the sake of what happened," Smith said. "I don't think he can be revenged by killing the shark."

Bruce and other shark experts point out that shark attacks are comparatively rare. Over the past 34 years sharks have killed only 32 people in Australia 7/8 fewer than have been killed by bee stings or by lightning strikes.

Against that toll, the experts argue, is the accidental death of around 500 or so great whites that each year get tangled in the shark nets that are put up at beaches to protect swimmers.


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