Sydney, Australia – As far as shark tales go, few match the drama of events unfolding on the coast of Australia’s most populous state.
An unprecedented wave of shark attacks this year in New South Wales has claimed the life of a Japanese man, left seven locals seriously wounded, closed beaches, and impacted local businesses.
It has also left harmonious coastal communities divided following the emergence of an unlikely coalition of surfers, fishermen, newspaper columnists, and indigenous Australians calling for sharks to be hunted down and killed.
“I’m siting in the surf club and looking up and down the beach and there is not a person in the water. I have been a lifesaver here for 50 years, and I have never seen anything like this,” said Geoff Harris, president of the Lennox Head Surf Club on the state’s northern coast, a string of dream-like beaches at the epicentre of recent attacks.
“We’ve always had sharks, not nothing like what we’re seeing at the present moment. People are spooked,” Harris told Al Jazeera.
In 2013 and 2014, there were three shark attacks in New South Wales – numbers that line up with the long-term average collected over 32 years by the Australian Sharks Attack File. Yet this year there have already been 13.
The most recent attack took place September 7 when Justin Daniels, 42, suffered puncture wounds while surfing.
“I love animals as much as anyone, but I am not going to sit here and say they shouldn’t cull them if there is a problem,” Daniels told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Craig Ison, 51, suffered wounds to his legs and hands when a shark latched onto him while surfing 50km south of Lennox Head in July. He is also advocating a return of lethal shark deterrents, namely baited drum lines and nets.
At a recent landmark meeting of 200 surfers, 95 percent of participants voted in favour of culling sharks.
“Surfers were against culling, but now that attacks are becoming more frequent and the danger seems more present, they’re starting to question their long-held beliefs,” said Stuart Nettle, editor of SwellNet, Australia’s most popular surfing website.
“These are not people who are backwards in their thinking but prominent figures in the community,” Nettle said.
The state’s biggest newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, added fuel to the fire with a ham-fisted opinion piece calling for a shark cull.
“What if you were at the beach with your son or daughter, your partner or your mother, and one of these sharks thought your loved one looked a tasty morsel?” opined columnist Laura Banks. “The ocean is our domain and sharks have no place destroying lives and livelihoods; these predators are lurking out there ready to cull humans and we as a community must find a permanent solution.”
Tony Dillon of the Ngarang-Wal Gold Coast Aboriginal Association in neighbouring Queensland state is also advocating killing sharks, citing ancient knowledge of controlled culls by his ancestors of marine species.
“On the Gold Coast there are hundreds of kilometres of man-made canals where many man-eating shark species utilise them for breeding and habitation,” Dillon said. “Certain shark species need to be protected, but species like the bull shark are abundant, and we need to implement measures to reduce risk to human life.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature says one-quarter of the world’s 400-odd shark species are in danger of extinction from overfishing.
The white shark – the species thought to be responsible for the attacks in New South Wales – is among them. In Australia, the white shark is listed as threatened and it’s an offence to injure, kill or trade one.
While some argue increased shark attacks are a result of growing shark populations, other say that’s not the case.
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“There is clear evidence from a range of sources of a decline in the relative abundance of the white shark population in Australian waters over the last 60 years,” John West from the Australian Shark Attack File wrote in a 2014 research paper.
He noted bull sharks and tiger sharks – two other species associated with the overwhelming majority of attacks on humans – are also in decline.
Shark researcher Jann Gilbert has another explanation for the spike in shark attacks, not only in Australia but also off the coasts of the US states of Florida and North and South Carolina.
“The attacks are a result of the high number of people in the ocean,” said Gilbert. “The theory is consistent with worldwide statistics and is directly related to the rise of human populations and the number of people using the ocean.”
New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, who was once chased by a shark while surfing, weighed in on the culling debate on Facebook.
“When I hear some members of board riding clubs up there are calling for a shark cull, it makes me sit up and pay attention. The surfers up there are fearless… Not only are they brave, these guys are keen environmentalists. They love the ocean and they love the creatures of the ocean… [But] from what we have seen so far in Western Australia, it doesn’t look like shark culling has had any real effect.”
David Wright, mayor of Ballina on New South Wales’ north coast, agreed. “Culling is not the answer. It would only work if they wiped out every single one of them.”
Minister for Primary Industries Niall Blair said the state government has introduced a “shark urgency response package” to deal with the problem.
“We are carrying out a 250,000 Australian dollars [$177,400] shark-tagging programme on the far north coast to try to better understand shark movements.
“We’re funding a 100,000 Australian dollar [$80,000] review into new technologies like new air curtains and sonar, and we’re holding an international shark summit in Sydney in October. And if we know there’s a rogue shark out there, we have the capacity to take it out,” said Blair.
“Basically we’re trying to piece together all the options to give confidence to locals and tourists to return to the water,” the minister said.
Nettle of SwellNet, one of a handful of hardcore surfers still riding the waves, said no one knows where or when the next shark attack might occur. “All I can say is it’s worrying that what’s happening now might happen again in the future,” he said.