A Scary Jump in Shark Attacks...Could Threaten the Sharks

`A wave came, a beautiful wave that took me right to the sand," says schoolteacher Mark Butler, who was lucky not to lose his leg or his life when a 3-meter shark chomped him in February at Brooms Head. The quiet, sandy beach, about 700 kilometers north of Sydney, is favored by local swimmers, surfers--and sharks. Butler received a thigh-long gash, then used his surfboard leg rope as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding before hobbling up the beach to get help.

Since August, sharks in Australian waters have killed three men, including a New Zealand tourist on his honeymoon. Two fatal attacks came within two days near popular Western Australia beaches. A close call occurred on Apr. 2, when a man sustained a large bite on his calf but was able to swim to safety. Scientists say the spate of attacks doesn't signal a rise in the trend but is simply an anomaly. Still, Australia's coastline is the most dangerous worldwide, reports the International Shark Attack File.

BEE STING. The attacks, and the publicity they attract, come as the country is drawing on its Olympics host fame to promote itself as a tourist destination. So far, they don't seem to be scaring anyone off: In January, 20% more tourists came to Australia than in that month the year before. Tourism industry executives expect a record year. They also stress that the odds of dying in a shark attack are smaller by far than getting killed by a crocodile, lightning strike, or bee sting in Australia. Nicola Beynon, who runs the wildlife and habitat program at Humane Society International, points out: "You're more likely to die on the way over in the airplane."

But tourists aren't the only ones flocking to the country's bays, coves, and beaches. Australians themselves increasingly are moving to the coasts. And as the number of people in the water rises, so do the odds that attacks will occur, according to John West, operations manager at Taronga Zoo in Sydney and curator of the Australian Shark Attack File.

Consider, for instance, neck-to-ankle wet suits, which enable surfers to brave chilly water. The suits make surfers look, to a shark, very much like a seal--and thus a meal. Sometimes, sharks will swim by and sample potential prey to see if it's edible. Great white sharks can grow as long as 5 meters and weigh 2,500 kilos. So even if the shark swims away after one nibble, "by that time, the bloke's in half," West says. "People need to be aware sharks do inhabit these areas."

The recent attacks don't alter the decades-long average of about one death a year here. But should a few more sharks get nasty in the coming months, Australia's waters may start to look less inviting.

When a great white killed Ken Crew in waist-deep water off a popular Perth beach last November, the state government issued a permit allowing the shark to be killed, calling it a "rogue animal." Finding the same great white proved impossible. But conservation groups were upset, arguing that allowing the shark to be hunted could have led to innocent sharks being killed.

Sharks are protected as threatened species in all Australian waters. Attacks like the recent ones in Perth, however, have caused "a backlash against that protection," says Beynon, even though "we're the reason they are threatened."

Game hunting and commercial fishing caused the great white and gray nurse shark populations, in particular, to plummet in the 1970s and 1980s. Officially, though, those species have been protected in Australia for just four years. It will be several more years, if not decades, before their numbers begin to turn around, because sharks breed infrequently, later in life, and have small litters. Shoreline development has also reduced shark nursery areas. And pollution has affected their environment.

On the east coast, nets are strung along a stretch of beaches near Sydney during the warmest months to help protect swimmers from sharks. The nets trap and kill not just sharks but seals, dolphins, and other fish. But they only offer a modicum of safety to bathers, because they're only up several days a week and don't cover the entire beach, says West. The trapped prey can even attract sharks near the beaches, he adds. It just might prove impossible to protect swimmers and sharks at the same time.

By Becky Gaylord in Brooms Head

Edited by Harry Maurer

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