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SHARK mitigation for surfing

A reflection of the various methods deployed by governments, scientists and entrepreneurs to try and prevent shark attacks.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Over recent decades, an increasing rate of shark attacks worldwide has prompted many scientists, entrepreneurs and governments to develop shark mitigation technology. Unfortunately, the randomness of shark attacks makes it hard to know if shark mitigation technology actually saves lives. Favourable circumstances do not prove success any more than unfavourable circumstances prove failure. However, an ethnographic account of shark mitigation could point policymakers in the right direction. Since surfers are the most vulnerable group exposed to the risk of shark attack, their perspective is front and centre in this review of shark mitigation and deterrent measures.

Shark scientists and academics reveal their priorities when they declare that fatal shark attacks, although tragic, are extremely rare events, which need not concern the general public as much as preserving the fragile health of marine ecosystems. They are afraid that governments might be pressured into adopting lethal methods of shark mitigation. So, they take an administrative perspective, oriented toward their primary goal of protecting sharks, and subsequently neglect the experience of individuals dealing with the problem. This article offers insight into the personal world of the surfer, in defiance of the scientists steering government policy, some of whom probably resent our not being at work, as they look down on us, literally from the sky, as revealed in this anecdote from Ballina’s Lighthouse Beach, in 2015:

“The dolphins seemed unusually curious this morning. A couple of young ones swam right up close, one jumping out of the water, as the other went under us. Some of the larger ones rode a wave in to the surf zone and we were surrounded by 15 or more fins and a few fast moving shadows. A couple of birds were diving not far out, the larger ones hitting the water like ballistic missiles. Then, a helicopter flew overhead, followed soon after by another, which circled for a minute before hovering just beyond the break. Had they seen something? Maybe it’s time to go in. This is where people get eaten, I was told at the lookout. Yeah, but the surf is pumping! Maybe it is time to go in. Nah. One more wave.”

Shark attacks are often tragic events, and yet the risk of attack rarely deters the avid surfer, who is apt to deal with the fear by adopting a mix of psychological and practical defences. However, others aren’t so philosophical, hoping instead to solve the problem with technology. Since the vast majority of people have nothing to worry about, their anxiety can be alleviated by government initiatives that appear to address the issue, without significantly reducing the risk. Often, the mere suggestion of safety is enough to placate a risk-averse society. So, different stakeholders have different ideas about what actually constitutes a ‘solution’.

A common remedy is the simple decision to surf with others. It is surprising how much safer you feel when joined in the surf by just one other surfer. You figure their presence doubles the odds of spotting a shark, while simultaneously halving your risk of being attacked. The vast majority of surfers appear to be content with this approach, often in defiance of science-based recommendations concerning when and where the risk should be avoided, such as around river mouths, especially after heavy rain. Confronted by their inability to find a solution, bureaucrats call on surfers to “responsibly self-assess risk in relation to encountering sharks”. But, if the surf is good, the opportunity to ride uncrowded waves becomes irresistible, no matter the risk. All it takes is for one brave soul to paddle out and others will follow.

Statistics show that surfers have braved the most perilous conditions for thousands of hours before an attack. So, you could enjoy hundreds of surfs in ‘risky’ conditions without incident. Of course, it is unfortunate when it does happen, and occasionally tragic, which is devastating for loved ones. However, it is also traumatic for bystanders, first responders and the broader community. So, a conscientious surfer would probably consider using a personal shark deterrent, like the scientifically proven Shark Shield™ that surrounds the surfboard with an electric field. According to independent research, the device reduces the risk of attack by around 60%. However, this figure soon drops to below zero when users, feeling protected by the device, end up surfing longer, more often, and in circumstances they might not otherwise have risked.

At least Shark Shield™ works as intended. The occasional jolt of electricity can be off-putting, but you soon get used to it, reminding yourself that sharks don’t like it either. However, the painful jolts might be too much for children to tolerate. So, it is not so easy for younger surfers to take responsibility for themselves, even if they wanted to, which would be unusual. Teenage boys are biologically predisposed to defy authority, especially when it involves risky behaviour. Moreover, children are at greater risk of attack, since sharks tend to go for the smaller of two objects presented to them. Other devices are available, but none is as effective as Shark Shield™. A popular alternative uses magnets, which can be worn as a wristband or ankle strap. Although it is true that magnets have a deterrent effect on sharks, the field is too small to provide real protection. So, governments need to regulate the market, so entrepreneurs don’t make unsubstantiated claims about the efficacy of their products.

Borrowing zoological defences, surfers can disguise their presence with camouflage, or its opposite, aposematic colouration, which alerts predators to the risk of consuming something poisonous. In the case of sharks, this is the black-and-white banded pattern of some poisonous sea snakes. Another example of biomimicry is the prominent display of eye-shaped markings on the bottom of the surfboard. Clearly, the evolution of fake-eye spots proves its efficacy as a defence strategy. However, research actually supports the hypothesis that ambush hunters are dissuaded by the appearance of fake eyes; apparently tricking them into thinking they have lost the element of surprise. That study concerned the predation of cattle by leopards and lions. So, it is debatable whether the findings can be applied to sharks, although it is encouraging that some species of fish have eye-like markings.

Tougher fabrics have been developed to reduce the severity of a bite as much as possible without compromising flexibility. You could also consider wearing a novel leg rope strap that converts to a tourniquet. However, blood flow to the leg can also be stopped by applying pressure to the crease at the top of the leg, “between the hip and the bits”. In fact, research indicates that this method is superior to a tourniquet. But, you won’t convince anyone on the day that a tourniquet isn’t needed. People can’t help but think that technology saves the day. Besides, they will end up blaming you if the injuries prove fatal.

That is why governments are in such a bind. The glorification of technology puts pressure on governments to “throw money at [the problem]”, as one speaker repeated at the Senate Inquiry into Shark Mitigation and Deterrent Measures. Scientists have subsequently fleeced the taxpayer, giving the government cover until the next election. They know it is futile trying to stop shark attacks. But, the government needs to be seen to be doing something, even if that means kicking the can down the road. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on programs designed to reduce the risk of shark attack, either by warning the public of a potential encounter, or actively relocating sharks caught on a SMART drum line. However, the massive scale of this investment does not reflect a desire to protect surfers, as much as the desire to protect sharks.

The SMART drum line program provides scientists with an opportunity to tag sharks, before releasing them further out to sea. The purpose of tagging sharks is to monitor their movements, partly for sake of discerning patterns that might inform policy decisions, and partly so that the public can be warned whenever a tagged shark is detected by a listening station. Brazilian authorities claim to have significantly reduced the rate of shark attacks by relocating sharks at about the same rate they had been attacking people; ten individuals per year. So, it is not surprising that our government took an interest in the program. However, a sceptic would argue that most sharks avoid capture when they are near the coast, and those that are caught eventually return to the coast, anyway. Satellite tracking of 22 relocated sharks has since revealed that most remained offshore for three days before slowly returning to shore, five of them returning within a week, and one within a day of being tagged. So, the length of time these sharks stayed offshore is insignificant compared to all the time spent by sharks in similar proximity to surfers. On the other hand, why wouldn’t you relocate a shark further out to sea, when you have the chance? It would be scandalous if someone were attacked by a shark only days after it was tagged.

Whenever a tagged shark is detected by a listening station, the public is notified through social media apps, potentially alerting anyone wearing a smartwatch in the adjacent surf break. While this seems like a perfect solution, not everyone feels threatened by the presence of a shark detected by a listening station 500 metres out to sea. The shark could be twice that distance away. Besides, the regularity of these alerts would seem to indicate that sharks are not all that interested in humans. Of course, it only takes one shark attack for that attitude to change. But, there will always be a brave bunch of surfers, who will revel in the opportunity to finally get as many waves as they want.

Sharks can be detected much closer to the surf zone using aerial surveillance craft, e.g. helicopters and drones, and underwater sensing devices, e.g. acoustic cameras and sonar. Their shape and distinctive swimming pattern can be discerned by a trained observer, or even a computer program. So, it is tempting to imagine a world in which the boundary between sharks and humans can be monitored effectively. However, it depends a lot on the conditions, which are not always favourable. In borderline cases, this deficiency could be overcome by anticipating the imminent arrival of a shark already detected by a listening station. Since time is of the essence, knowledge of a shark in the area permits the surveillance system, human or otherwise, to lower the threshold of identification.

Instead of informing the public of a remote possibility of danger, listening stations are best viewed as an early warning system that activates other systems operating closer to shore. While regular reminders could serve to keep ocean users on their toes, their regularity could also be viewed as evidence that the presence of sharks is nothing to worry about. So, it would be wiser not to tell the public every time a shark is detected. On the other hand, a trend in the frequency of detections is definitely worth reporting, since an uptick in the rate of detections could indicate an influx of sharks, increasing the risk of an encounter. If it is considered noteworthy that shark numbers vary in accordance with migratory patterns, shouldn’t the public be informed of an actual increase, when it occurs?

Scientists are keen to use mathematical modelling whenever it suits their purpose, like estimating the population of great whites, or predicting the future rate of shark attacks. However, they have yet to model the efficacy of their own SMART drumline program. Unfortunately, there are not enough listening stations to determine how often the state’s 500+ surf breaks are visited by sharks. Even so, the absurdity of the program is not the relatively small number of relocated sharks so much as the assumption those individuals posed a threat to anyone at the time. Whichever way you look at it, the SMART drumline program is not saving lives.

Instead of laboriously relocating sharks, it might be easier to attract them to purpose built reefs situated a few kilometres offshore. Diversionary feeding works on land, so perhaps it would also work in the sea. An ideal scenario would be a chain of reefs, running parallel to the coast, some distance out to sea, where sharks can regularly feed. Between the reefs, fish aggregating devices (FADs) could be deployed at regular intervals, forming a nutrient highway that bypasses popular beaches and surf breaks. Sharks could be drawn toward the reefs by sounds that attract them. Apart from protecting coastal communities, the creation of habitat for marine ecosystems would also help to sustain fisheries. So, there could be a range of benefits enjoyed by nature and society.

Rewarding behaviour is the most ethically sound way to manipulate an animal. So, it is curious that a comprehensive study of artificial reefs makes no mention of shark mitigation. Even shark scientists have overlooked the possibility of diverting sharks toward artificial reefs. Another related study used surveillance technology developed to protect surfers, without even considering how surfers might benefit from the findings. It was only concerned with how the confluence of sea life and fishers might increase the number of sharks caught. Luckily, they found that sharks are not especially vulnerable to fishing on artificial reefs. So, the government ought to include artificial reefs in their suite of shark mitigation measures.

Shark attacks are frightening. But, they are also extremely rare. So, there is no need to be afraid–at least, not until someone is attacked in the area. At that point, you might not want to surf too late in the day, especially on your own. Only after the second attack do you really need to take things seriously. On a positive note, a spate of shark attacks does thin the crowd. So, you’ll get plenty of waves and experience a level of camaraderie like never before. You will be surrounded by more sea life than surfers, and occasionally decide to join a lone surfer, even if the waves are poor–or watch until he comes in, just in case something happens.

If you have loved ones, you will investigate solutions, if only to reassure them. Fortunately, all the knowledge in the world is at our fingertips. However, there is no shortage of opportunistic entrepreneurs trying to cash in on people’s fears. So, you need to ask manufacturers for scientific evidence supporting their claims. If you don’t have loved ones, you will probably defy the odds, half hoping to be taken, and sit there pondering the radical nature of existence, soothed perhaps by a fantasy, where someone notices a little memorial under the pandanas palm, where you check the surf.

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YEAR: 2015
STARRING: MIKEY WRIGHT, LOUIE HYND, OWEN WRIGHT, CREED MCTAGGART & CAST OF THOUSANDS
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Bi-monthly delivery of Tracks Magazine to your doorstep: 6 issues per year

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Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

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Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

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Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

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Bi-monthly delivery of Tracks Magazine to your doorstep: 6 issues per year

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

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Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

MONTHLY DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION

Digital magazine only

$2.99

Billed Monthly

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

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