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When sharks attack: how councils try and contain the fear

Sharks can inspire fear, hysteria or deep respect, and it is the local councils who sit at the front line when communities suffer the tragedy of death from a shark bite.

Popular East Coast tourism town Byron Bay had its first shark fatality in more than 20 years last month. Mayor Simon Richardson says his key role in the immediate aftermath was to ensure his response was calm amid the national media frenzy.

“The mainstream media initially started off with the first question about concern,” Richardson told The Mandarin. But it didn’t take long for the angle to turn political: “Do I think it will affect tourism? Do I support killing the shark or hunting the shark or putting anything in place whether that be nets or drum-lines? Pretty much across the board, they were asking those same questions.”

Richardson says there is no time for community consultation when such an unexpected tragedy happens, so it’s important to always be attuned to community expectations. His response to media was: “On one hand it’s a national park, and the bottom line is our community respects the diversity of the ocean. We have that relationship with it, we accept that sometimes tragedies happen and we honour sharks as much as we honour whales and dolphins.”

Richardson, a member of the Greens, says his comments reflect community values. “I think if I’d said anything different I’d have been strung up, and rightfully so. We’ve got a very active community here, people pride themselves on their relationship with the environment,” he said.

In the weeks after the death, Richardson had a series of informal conversations about issues that arose from the incident. He met with major tourism representatives to discuss whether visitor numbers to Byron Bay might be impacted, and there was general agreement among these business leaders that it was important to keep the event in perspective and use non-inflammatory language.

“Anyone who travels the coastline of Australia understands sharks are part of that reality. I was pretty confident there wouldn’t be any wholesale cancellation of bookings,” he said.

He also had meetings with local inventors who presented prototypes for shark protection measures that don’t pose harm to the marine environment: one a protective suit and another a detection technology.

One conversation he hasn’t had since the fatality is with state government, which has authority over the marine park where the man was killed. “It would have to come from the Department of Environment and that sort of state body. There is certainly no indication from any of those organisations that they are remotely looking at it,” Richardson said.

“They understand it is science-based; they know if you put nets across that area the collateral damage for other species is massive. If state government tried to impose something, it would have been very interesting.”

Richardson says much of the media interest in Byron Bay’s response to the shark tragedy on the east coast was in the context of the West Australian government’s dramatic response to cull sharks through drum-line baiting. “West Australia did have three or four instances pretty quickly. They panicked and got populist with a knee-jerk reaction, rather than looking at science and taking a holistic response,” he said.

Deaths in Western Australia

The West Australian government made international headlines last year with its decision to bait and cull sharks after the seventh fatality in four years in the state.

Mayor Ian Stubbs of the City of Busselton in West Australia, surrounding the popular coastal town of Dunsborough in the south-west where many of the deaths occurred, says council worked with state government in the face of community and media fears. As well as baiting and killing sharks, a beach enclosure was also installed through state government funding.

“The first enclosure was part of a trial conducted by the state government as part of its shark mitigation strategy. The city was involved in identifying the location for the enclosure and conducting the tender process. City officers undertook the installation and monitored the enclosure during the trial period,” Stubbs told The Mandarin.

“During the initial beach enclosure trial the state government was also trialling drum-line baiting off Western Australian beaches. This trial has ended and will not run again.”

However, other measures will continue. “Regular shark spotting aerial surveys over popular swimming and surfing areas will be conducted over the summer months and the city rangers will continue to respond to calls to close beaches where a threat to human life has been identified,” Stubbs said.

It’s important to be realistic when considering protective measures, according to Stubbs: “It’s not possible to protect or patrol the entire coastline.”

[pullquote] “We are working with other agencies to ensure people are as well informed as possible about the potential danger of shark attack and that they have options.” [/pullquote]

Dunsborough and the surrounding coastline within the City of Busselton is a major west coast tourism destination. Stubbs has been in contact with local tourism operators to discuss the impact of shark fears.

“Our beautiful aquatic environment is perhaps the region’s most significant drawcard. The recent spate of shark attacks in the south-west, while not impacting on overall visitor numbers, has had an impact on tourist industries that offer ocean-based activities like surfing lessons or scuba diving. We are working with other agencies to ensure people are as well informed as possible about the potential danger of shark attack and that they have options,” he said.

The local surf lifesaving group collates and communicates shark sightings so people can make their own decisions about whether or not they’ll go in the water, he says.

With the first beach enclosure declared a success, the council has been awarded further state funding to install a second enclosure. “[T]his is an option proving popular with families and recreational swimmers,” Stubbs said.

For many councils, the issue of shark protection is one managed entirely by state government. In another West Australian council area, Margaret River, which is directly south along the coast of the City of Busselton, the council declined an interview, stating their jurisdiction ends at the water line, so they have a management-only response of the foreshore area. This restricts council to activities such as erecting signs if there’s been a shark sighting or if the state government closes a beach.

A statement from the City of Newcastle said that shark meshing off the region’s coastline is managed by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries:

“We do work with state government and support their efforts, but the shark protection initiatives are developed by state government and they also handle community interaction and managing [of] expectations.”

Sharks as tourism bait

In some parts of the country, sharks mean big business. The City of Eyre, situated around Port Lincoln in South Australia, is an area world-renowned for its sharks, with shark cage diving being the primary tourist attraction. “We are one of the best places in the world to interact with the great white shark,” said Mayor Bruce Green

While sharks offer the number one tourist attraction, the region’s primary industry is commercial fishing, with sashimi-grade tuna, sardines and abalone among its most lucrative exports. While there is great sadness after a fatality, the fishing community has a strong respect for and acceptance of the dangers of the ocean, Green says.

“We have suffered quite a number of tragic interactions between the great white sharks,” he said. “The two types of people who get attacked are surfers and abalone divers. In our marina there was a sighting of a four-metre great white shark a couple of weeks ago. We know they cruise these waters from time to time.”

There is a swimming enclosure at the Port Lincoln jetty, but there have been no outcries for culling of sharks or any further measures for protection, Green says.

“Our coastline is vast and unpopulated. We don’t have crowded beaches. There’s no suggestions or attempts to protect any beaches because of the remoteness and the low level of use.”

The council has invested in a pontoon-based enclosure. “That gives people the feeling of protection that they need,” Green said. However, there are many others who continue to swim in the unprotected ocean.

“And the surfers don’t seem to have changed or modified their activity from the fatality we get from time to time,” he said. “The whole shark cage diving industry has been so beneficial to our community, I wouldn’t say we’ve got a soft spot for the sharks, but we understand the intrigue that they have for people all around the world.”

Byron Bay’s Simon Richardson says fatalities from shark bites are something that all coastal councils tune into wherever it occurs in the country, and it’s interesting to observe the way it is handled at a local level.

“You’re dealing with loss of life, which is an issue that I think most councils will look to see what other councils are doing, but with an inherent unconscious relief they’re not the ones having to deal with it.”

Author Bio

Anneli Knight

Anneli Knight is a freelance journalist based in Byron Bay.