The shark debate

The day before Tadashi Nakahara was killed by a shark, I was surfing at the same location. It was late afternoon, the waves were small and the wind onshore. Suddenly, I saw a school of large fish in the face of a wave. I pushed through the wave and sat up on my board, marvelling at what I had just seen. They were good sized fish. I sat there for a little while and then it occurred to me that something might have been chasing them. So, I turned to go in, but it was too shallow to paddle across the reef, so I started paddling around the reef to where I could access the beach. Then I noticed some turbulence about four metres in front of me. So I paddled straight to shore and exited the water about five metres from where Tadashi died the next day.

A couple of months after the attack, I made an appointment with Ballina Council to ask what I should do after seeing a shark. Three times I had sat in my car wondering how long I should hang around in case anyone arrived ready to paddle out where a shark had just been seen. I was told that electronic notice boards were being considered, even though Council was not actually responsible for what happens in the ocean. I don’t know what happened to that idea, but two years after the meeting, we still don’t have a reliable system in place.

Then Matthew Lee was attacked at Lighthouse Beach. I was surfing with a couple of guys at the north end when one of them paddled over to me saying that it looked like something was happening at the other end of the beach. I had heard a siren, but figured it was headed somewhere else, since everyone at the lookout was just staring out to sea like normal. They had obviously not noticed the commotion at the other end of the beach. I ran down the beach to see what had happened, but was told tersely to go away. I can’t blame them for being blunt. They were dealing with a horrific injury. I guess I was only trying to digest what was happening. But, nobody had called us out of the water and a few guys were still surfing further north.

Ironically, news of the attack spread rapidly around the world. Journalists descended on Ballina and the mayor had to deal with what seemed like a real-life episode of Jaws. I already knew that bureaucracy was preoccupied with its own preservation. So, I set up a Facebook page called Ballina Shark Reports, which grew rapidly to 6,000 likes, half of them from the local area. Our local parliamentarian mentioned the page in state parliament, suggesting it was an indication of concern felt by the community. But the service itself was not supported by the government, despite numerous attempts by me to get the various authorities involved.

After five weeks and 35 shark reports, I deactivated the page because I was not sure if the service could be relied upon throughout the longer days of summer. Even with a few committed volunteers, it was difficult to monitor every daylight hour. Some people thought the page was bad for tourism. So I was also afraid I might be blamed if any businesses happened to fail, as they often do in a small town anyway. I was disappointed because I knew how much people valued the service. Within minutes of a report coming in, I could see the post being shared across the community. I don’t know how many of these people were surfers, but the number of middle-aged women using the page suggested that a lot of mothers were worried about their sons spending time in the ocean.

I gradually got back into surfing and tried to avoid the topic, especially on my way to the beach. But, helicopters were a daily reminder and you would feel sick every time you heard an ambulance. Then, Sam Morgan was attacked while surfing at Lighthouse Beach – the third attack that year, all within a kilometre of the river mouth. It was really difficult to keep surfing after so many attacks, but there were so many waves going unridden. People also tended to surf in groups, so even if it got semi-crowded at one location, the next beach was usually empty. You would feel courageous just paddling to the next peak. Another bonus was the abundant sea life. One day, a whale came right into the surf zone, then turned back out to sea and ploughed through a set as we duck-dived beside it. Sometimes you get a fright when a dolphin suddenly pops up next to you or a stingray glides underneath. It is awesome to feel connected with nature. But, I can’t accept being part of the food chain.

Then Cooper Allen was attacked. I was standing in waist deep water, about five metres away, when I saw a shark in the face of a wave between me and three guys sitting further out. A few seconds later, I heard a shout and then saw the nose of a board sailing through the air. I thought the board had been snapped in half, but the back end was just hidden behind the wave. I jumped over the wave and looked over to where the attack happened, half expecting to see a dismembered body. What I saw was Cooper swimming backwards, away from the shark, which I then realised had swum away with the tail of the board in its mouth. The shark stopped about five metres from Cooper and was thrashing with the board still in its mouth, shuddering vertically in the water. As I paddled toward Cooper, I saw his mates, Tom and Jae paddle toward him. It makes me smile every time I think about that moment. Two young guys trying to protect their mate. How many times must that have happened in human history?

Once again, the media circus begins and, as I see Tom and Jae being devoured by Channel Seven, I realise that I have to speak for them. When interviewed by The Australian, I made my position clear. I honestly couldn’t care less if these creatures went extinct. Just because they play a role in the ecosystem doesn’t mean that role can’t be played by other species of shark. At least two peer-reviewed academic papers make that case (1, 2). But the scientific community is too beholden to environmental ideals to share that information with the public, even when asked to make submissions to a Senate Inquiry debating the matter.

So, I wrote to the Australian Institute of Marine Science to find out what they thought of the idea that dangerous sharks might not be as important to marine ecosystems as some would have us believe. I wanted them to at least admit the possibility that dangerous sharks could be viewed as expendable, instead of surfers. But, the environmental ethos is so ingrained in people’s minds that it seems blasphemous to even suggest that the existence of sharks could be subordinated to mere recreation. Unfortunately, they did not reply to my emails, even though their submission to the inquiry acknowledges that community values need to be considered, as well as scientific data.

One of the biggest obstacles we face in addressing the question of values is the belief that science should guide the government on ethical matters. Science and ethics are different domains of inquiry. Science cannot answer questions of moral status, like whether it is morally permissible to kill sea creatures so that humans can enjoy the ocean without fear of attack. Or whether sea creatures have a moral right to live, even if humans occasionally fall victim to shark attack. The answers depend on what you value. It seems bizarre that Peter Singer has not made his views known. I tried writing to him, too.

I also wrote to Sydney University, hoping to get some help calculating the risk of shark attack, but was told nobody was available. We often hear that you are at greater risk of dying on the way to the beach. But, I estimated the risk of a fatal shark attack near Ballina to be 50 times the risk of road related death. So, unless you are driving all the way from Perth to Ballina, you can’t conclude that driving to Lighthouse Beach is more dangerous than surfing there. Nor did I receive a reply from an epidemiologist at La Trobe University, who wrote an article claiming that the risk of shark attack was exaggerated, despite admitting, near the end of the article, that “… if you live in Alice Springs, you would not expect your risk of being killed by a shark to be the same as for a surfer who lives on the coast.” A similar article appeared on the Ethics Centre website, not long after I emailed them for advice.

I think the main problem is that people are reluctant to defy environmental ideology. Some people actually identify with environmental principles. But, I am inclined to think that most are simply afraid of the inevitable backlash that results from supporting any human endeavour that costs the lives of non-human creatures. Kelly Slater received death threats for suggesting there were too many sharks around Reunion Island. The backlash was so intense he quickly issued a retraction; no doubt fearing that his reputation had been damaged. Luckily, I don’t have anything to lose, apart from my life, which is in danger anyway. But, it is not so much my own safety that concerns me. I can’t cope with the thought of young people being attacked. How can we accept the horrific death of Laeticia Brouwer, who had her leg bitten off in front of her family?

I like to think that the pen is mightier than the sword. But there is a lot of misinformation being circulated, also by scientists. Professor Meeuwig told the Committee that; “… in Hawaii they spent 15 years killing 4,500 tiger sharks with no change in the impact on fatalities.” She was not asked to cite the source, but was probably referring to some research (3), which states that 4,668 sharks were killed between 1959 and 1976, of which just 554 were tiger sharks (not 4,500). Amanda Morgan also misrepresented the same research, saying that; “Over a 17-year period there were almost 5,000 sharks killed with no significant reduction in shark attacks.” Although technically true, the statement infers that all these sharks presented a risk to humans, which is not true, since over 4,000 were non-dangerous species.

Environmentalists probably don’t realise that they anthropomorphise Nature. But, academics like Christopher Neff should know better. He designed a survey, which asked people how they would describe the mentality of a shark biting a person. He found that people who viewed shark bites as accidental were more likely to value shark conservation, while those who viewed shark bites as intentional were more likely to endorse policies aimed at reducing shark numbers. Based on these results, Neff suggests that shark conservation could gain greater acceptance by helping the latter group view shark bites as unintentional.

Applying the notion of intent to shark attacks is a sleight of hand, because it characterises the shark issue in terms of justice, as though it concerns a shark’s personal responsibility. Since it is silly to blame a shark for being a shark, the notion of justice implies that it be set free. But, it never was a question of justice. The policy to reduce the population of sharks is not punishment. It is just the most direct way to reduce the frequency of shark attacks. Thinking about a shark’s intentions makes them seem like people, which is a tricky way of getting people to support shark conservation. A different set of questions could produce the opposite result by dehumanising sharks – not as monsters, but as fish.

Dr Neff presented his research at the Senate inquiry into shark mitigation and deterrent measures, confident that the vast majority of Ballina’s population favoured non-lethal methods of shark mitigation. But, he also remarked that surfers; “would be crazy not to be concerned after seven shark bites in Ballina”. As a member of Ballina’s surfing community, I have difficulty accepting the results of the survey, because I know that most of us favour lethal methods of shark mitigation. He did note, however, that fear diminishes with distance. So, the disparity might simply reflect our being on the frontline, where the fear of attack is visceral.

According to the survey, almost nobody blames the government for shark attacks, despite most of us knowing full well that the government has played a key role in creating this problem. It is not hard to see that surfers are the victims of an injustice resulting from government policy. About twenty years ago, a bunch of boneheaded bureaucrats decided to list great whites as endangered, without considering how their protection might result in more shark attacks.

Dr Barry Bruce denies that protecting great whites has increased the frequency of attacks. He has used sophisticated models to prove that the population has only grown by around 10%. Of course, it is impossible for non-mathematicians to criticise the modelling, except to point out that the upper limit of ten pups per cycle might fall short of reality. According to retired shark fisherman David Woods, great whites can carry more than 20 pups. But, even a 20% increase is at odds with all the anecdotal evidence; not to mention the unusually high rate of shark attacks.

The decision to protect great whites depended on a legal contrivance called the “precautionary principle”, whereby species can be listed as ‘endangered’ without solid evidence. Nobody knew how many great whites were out there in 1997. But, the precautionary principle allowed them to make a judgement based essentially on gut feeling.

It is curious that an equivalent allowance is not made for the protection of people. As Senator Whish-Wilson explained the government’s predicament; “… it eventually may come down to a precautionary principle decision either way: a precautionary principle to protect human life and take a wild stab in the dark [at predicting shark numbers] or a precautionary principle to protect the conservation [status] of a shark.”

Luckily, Whish-Wilson is a surfer, but as a Greens Senator, he established the inquiry to challenge the Federal Government’s justification for suspending the protection of great whites, so that shark nets and drumlines could be deployed off Ballina. This was only possible because a clause in the Act allows for consideration of matters of national security. The Senator does not think that shark attacks threaten national security and he has a point, but that argument was the only way that shark nets and drumlines could be deployed off Ballina without breaking a law that inadvertently values sharks above humans.

So, the pretext for the inquiry was really just a legal issue. But, the Terms of Reference were formulated to address the core issue of shark attacks, which is surprisingly complicated. As Dr Leah Gibbs explained to the inquiry, there are; “numerous complex social and ecological factors … that interact in very complex ways”. It will be an interesting report if they can unravel all the different threads. But, there is no denying that the risk of shark attack can be reduced by reducing the number of sharks. That part is not complicated. All the government has to do is de-list great whites, so that fishermen can catch them again.

The Greens are mainly concerned about shark nets. The most likely outcome of the inquiry is a recommendation to gradually remove all shark nets from Australian waters. The problem with shark nets is that they catch a lot of other sea creatures. The quantity of bycatch is insignificant compared to commercial fishing. But, they’ll persevere because it is an achievable goal. Drumlines are more targeted than nets and the SMART drumline system allows for the shark to be released further out to sea with a monitoring tag attached. As one local environmentalist confided: “I have totally changed my mind in light of the SMART drumline trial. We were totally opposed and now although it’s not perfect it’s looking a lot better than the nets as a viable option for beach safety.”

It is hard to say if the shark situation actually represents a threat to national security. The state government’s request highlighted the adverse effect that shark attacks have on tourism. Obviously, the vast majority of people have nothing to fear going in the ocean. An education campaign could probably counter the sensational reporting that Neff has dubbed the Jaws Effect. However, there is a subset of ocean users who spend enough time in the ocean to have genuine concern for their safety. Some people can block out the fear, but many suffer anxiety every time they hear of another attack. You feel like your time is almost up. The issue of psychological trauma was neglected by the government, explaining its rationale for shark nets; probably because economic outcomes are easier to discuss. But, it is seriously undermining our ability to flourish in the way that we like to live. So, it is bound to have an effect on productivity.

Surfing is therapeutic in essence. So, I would happily argue that it is in everyone’s interest to jump in the ocean every day. But, it is such an intangible benefit that policy makers can’t see its value to society. Another way that surfing contributes to society is by maintaining a last line of defence protecting swimmers, often tourists, caught in rips. It has been estimated that surfers save just as many people as trained lifesavers. Most surfers have saved at least one person from drowning. So, it was disappointing to hear Senator Whish-Wilson draw attention to the higher rate of drownings compared to shark attacks. But, the comparison is hardly relevant, since drowning victims tend to be poor swimmers, whose risk can be reduced with more exposure, not less, as is the case with shark attacks. The more time you spend in the water the better you get at swimming.

It really is a complicated issue and not a lot of people care enough to unravel all the lies, confused thinking and outright deception. Most of the conversation online is either venting, virtue signalling or a hideous combination of the two. The best way I can describe the difference between what motivates me and what motivates eco-warriors is that I don’t want to be in this debate, I HAVE to be; they don’t have to be, they WANT to be. They are primarily motivated by a desire to appear virtuous to the environmental community. So, they are really just protecting their identity, which is a pathetic excuse when you consider that we are trying to save lives.

It must feel good to identify with ecology, as though its stability reflects your own psychological well-being. But this tendency to deify Nature is romantic. The ocean is not a pretty picture. Everything gets eaten – either chomped in half or slowly suffocated while dissolving in stomach acid. It is pure horror. But people only see what they want to see – a symbolic vision of utopia, disconnected from reality.

This adoration of Nature and condemnation of humans is just another attempt to control the world. The environmental movement thrives on its own image, just like any other consumer product. That’s what happens when ideologies feed on their own success. They lose touch with reality. How easy it is to hate humans, while taking human accomplishments for granted.

In my submission, I propose that the government withdraw from the debate by allowing interested parties to bid on the fate of dangerous sharks. If people want to protect sharks, they should demonstrate their commitment by spending their own money and not relying on taxpayers. Likewise, if surfers want to enjoy the ocean without the risk of shark attack, they should also pay up. Both sides of the debate should put their money where their mouth is. I can’t see any other way of settling the dispute.

Technology isn’t going to save the day. No matter how much money is spent trying to mitigate the risk of shark attack, lives will be lost unless we dramatically reduce the population of dangerous sharks. It is delusional to think you can save humans and sharks at the same time. It is a nice thought, but it is not realistic. Either you value humans or you value sharks. The middle ground is an illusion.

The first hearing was held in Sydney, where a cancellation gave me the opportunity to address the committee. The mood was respectable, if a little self-congratulatory, with headstrong environmentalists speaking for the planet. I knew I was speaking for a section of the community, many of whom were reluctant to voice their concerns, for fear of copping abuse for not wanting to sacrifice their children to Gaia. So, I focused on the issue of protecting children from predators. I am hoping that the silent majority teaches the Greens a lesson, because I think they have made a serious blunder on this issue. It is a perfect example of why society must not give in to vocal minorities.


  1. Heithaus, et al. (2008). Predicting ecological consequences of marine top predator declines, Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol.23 No.4, p.208.
  2. O’Neall (2001). Is it time to bury the Ecosystem concept? (With full military honors, of course!) Ecology, Vol. 82, No. 12. p.3277.
  3. Wetherbee, B.M. Lowe, C.G. & Crow, G.L. (1994). A Review of Shark Control in Hawaii with Recommendations for Future Research, Pacific Science, vol. 48, no. 2: 95-115.