Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Shark protection industry at work?

Lurking beyond our fatal shores | The Australian: "Lurking beyond our fatal shores

SHARKS are a summer certainty, but how afraid should we be?

IT'S summer in Australia and, as always, the crowds flock to our golden beaches to paddle, swim and surf. It's our heritage and nothing can keep us away. Not even sharks.

Not even the brutal savagery of a shark attack that can dismember and kill. After all, statistics tell us only one person a year dies from a shark attack in Australia. That's on average.

Not bad odds, we tell ourselves. Tens of thousands of us frolic in our coastal waters every day without fear of sharks. Indeed, most Australians have never seen a shark. The risk of attack is not worth worrying about. It's more likely we'll get run over by a truck.

Yet that risk is a reality, even though the bell tolls slowly.

On August 17 this year, father of two Nicholas Edwards was the most recent to die from a shark attack in Australian waters. He was attacked by a great white shark while surfing at Gracetown, near Margaret River 280km south of Perth, the same location where Bradley Adrian Smith was mauled to death six years earlier.

Dive tour guide Elyse Frankcom, 19, was luckier late last month when she survived a great white attack near Rockingham, 50km south of Perth, not far from where Brian Guest was fatally mauled in December 2008.

Sharks do bite. The prevailing opinion, however, is that most attacks are the result of mistaken identity. In the water, from below, humans can resemble seals or turtles. Or it may be a case of simple curiosity. The shark will bite and quickly let go when it realises this is not its natural food.

During months of research for my book Shark! Killer Tales from the Dangerous Depths, I interviewed a wide range of experts from former shark hunters to marine scientists and researchers.

The overwhelming opinion is that fear of sharks is unwarranted and the danger factor almost zero. That fear, they say, is a result of fictitious accounts of monster sharks such as that portrayed in Peter Benchley's book Jaws and the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name that became a worldwide hit in 1975.

Mass killing of sharks followed, leading to several species becoming endangered. Environmentalists claim the killing mood and fear of sharks is exacerbated by sensationalist reports in the media, a trend they say continues whenever an attack occurs.

But there are those who disagree vehemently and warn that the soft attitude to sharks gives people a false and dangerous sense of security.

Fritz Herscheid is one of them. Herscheid, a former salvage diver who operated a lucrative business recovering scrap metal and shipwreck treasures in Papua New Guinea waters during the 1960s and 70s, had to share his encounters with sharks, including tigers and hammerheads, and he didn't like it.

'I would like to see every dangerous shark dead,' Herscheid insists. 'If I could find a genetic way of killing all whites, tigers and bull sharks, I'd kill all of them.'

Bold words, but Herscheid, who owns a broker business in Cairns, refuses to back off.

'Humans come first and animals come second. We have as much right in the water as them and if they can't be kept away from people, then get rid of them.

'My son is a keen surfer, and if he was killed by a shark I'd be a Vic Hislop, all my life killing sharks.'

Hislop's name is known to most Australians. Think sharks, think Hislop, shark hunter.

Hislop hasn't changed his attitude towards sharks in four decades. He maintains hardcore greenies cover up the truth about shark attacks and that many people presumed missing and drowned at sea have in fact been taken by sharks.

He is mocked in scientific circles as a shark killer with no real knowledge of the creatures he hunts. To others, however, he is a valiant sea warrior ridding our coastline of man-eating predators.

Prominent underwater photographers and documentary filmmakers Ron and Valerie Taylor summed up the prevailing conservation attitude to Hislop when Ron Taylor told me in 1991 that they refused to discuss the man or his claims.

'Hislop is the only person in the world we don't want to be associated with,' he said.

'No wonder!' Hislop replied. 'They won't front me on television to debate this issue. I've challenged them, but they're not game because they know I can back up what I'm saying.'

After a spate of shark attacks around the Australian coast early last year, Hislop was adamant in his long-held belief that bureaucrats and government officials, aided and abetted by conservation groups and tourism dive operators, lead a conspiracy to cover up the true figures relating to shark attack fatalities.

'The shark protection industry doesn't like me because I tell the truth,' Hislop says.

'I won't change. I've been right all along. Shark fatalities around Australia and the world are continually manipulated to suit the shark industry.'

Hislop continues to hunt sharks from his base at Hervey Bay, Queensland, where his popular shark show continues to attract enthusiastic crowds.

'The people who are hiding the truth about great white sharks are the ones who will stay out of the water and die in bed. They have no worries, but what about their children and grandchildren?

'Some of them are sure to be taken because I predict the coming years will see a great increase in fatal attacks, all because of blatant lies and bureaucratic stupidity.'

One of the issues that intrigues me is the question of so-called rogue sharks - sometimes referred to as serial killers of the sea - those that attack and kill humans in numbers, at the same time, in the same place.

Do rogue sharks exist or are multiple attacks merely coincidental and random? That such attacks sometimes occur is a fact, but the reasons why are in dispute.

In one little-known but terrifying incident, a tiger shark attacked three people in one day in Madang Harbour in PNG, killing two.

Nine days later it struck again, claiming its third human life.

The killing spree began on February 7, 1996. On that day, the calm waters of this peaceful town were turned into a bloody slaughterhouse as the shark stalked the harbour. In little more than a week, three lives were lost in four attacks.

Tim Rowland, an expatriate Australian who has operated adventure dive tours in PNG and Solomon Islands for the past four decades, said it wasn't until the next day that the attacks became general knowledge.

'Very few people would have known on the day they happened,' Rowland told me. 'The two who went in after the first wouldn't have known.

'That shark basically had breakfast, lunch and dinner.'

A week later, Rowland was scuba diving with a student when they were confronted by a 4m tiger shark. Rowland had entered the water knowing the risk, but experience and common sense ensured he was alert to danger.

'We were supposed to do a surface swim but because I thought the shark might still be around I decided we'd go underwater,' Rowland says.

'I'm glad we did because that's when we ran into him. We were in a little alcove when the shark came in over the top and brushed against me.

'I heard the student scream through his regulator, so I grabbed him and pulled him down to the bottom. I was certain this was the shark that had killed those people.'

Rowland punched the shark as it made several passes before moving off.

'I was amazed at how slow the shark was moving. It was like slow motion, and I was thinking when is he going to open his mouth and take a chomp at us. He was a big shark.'

Rowland and the student made it to safety. A 4m tiger shark was caught 11 days after the first attacks. He has no doubt it was Madang's killer shark.

Australian surgeon V. M. Coppleson was one of the first modern scientists to develop the rogue shark theory in his attempt to understand and explain why sharks occasionally attack humans in numbers.

In his 1958 book Shark Attack, Coppleson used the term rogue many times as he documented multiple attacks across the world, including several serial fatal attack patterns on Sydney's beaches in the 20s and 30s.

He also recorded a series of five fatal shark attacks in four years on the sparsely populated beaches north of Cairns in the 40s.

In an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia, Coppleson wrote: 'A rogue shark, if the theory is correct, and evidence appears to prove it to the hilt - like the man-eating tiger - is a killer which, having experienced the deadly sport of killing or mauling a human, goes in search of similar game. The theory is supported by the pattern and frequency of many attacks.'

The most famous example of multiple shark attacks took place on the New Jersey coast of the US during the summer of 1916, when four people were killed in 12 days. Such a series of attacks was unknown at the time.

Disbelief, fear and confusion reigned until a great white shark was caught in Raritan Bay with human bones and flesh in its stomach.

In December 1957, the South African city of Durban was the focal point for what is believed to be a world record for the most shark attacks in a single place in a short time.

Beginning in what became known as Black December and continuing for 107 days, seven attacks took place at unprotected beaches south of the city, claiming five lives.

But the rogue shark concept is almost universally dismissed in contemporary scientific thought.

John West, who collates statistics for Sydney's Taronga Zoo's Australian Shark Attack File, rejects the notion of rogue sharks that specifically target humans.

He points out that Coppleson's rogue shark theory, while credible at the time, is discredited.

'Modern analysis of shark attack data does not support the theory of a rogue shark as a viable explanation for the vast majority of shark attacks, whether clustered or not,' West says.

'Some of the clusters of attacks he noted were many kilometres apart, or months or even years apart, and could not realistically relate to a single rogue shark.'

John Stevens, a senior principal research scientist at CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Hobart who has 30 years' experience studying sharks, agrees that Coppleson's rogue shark theory is just that, a theory.

'There is no scientific basis for it. It's more likely that favourable conditions for sharks at the time of an attack just brought several into the area around the same time,' Stevens says.

'There is no evidence for one individual being responsible for a chain of attacks.'

Shark attack survivor Rodney Fox, the diver who was almost bitten in half by a great white in 1963 and now owns and operates the Rodney Fox Great White Shark Expeditions at Port Lincoln in South Australia, agrees.

'There is no evidence that a rogue shark, a killer with a taste for human blood, has ever existed in the past or exists now,' he says.

But it's hard to deny the evidence of some multiple attacks being the deadly work of a single shark, and that day of horror in Madang Harbour comes to mind.

Three attacks in one day. Two people dead. One shark.

Robert Reid is the author of Shark! Killer Tales from the Dangerous Depths published by Allen & Unwin and available next Tuesday.

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